One of the most rapidly declining birds in the UK put in an unexpected appearance at Minsmere on Monday. Grey partridges were once a familiar sight throughout the UK, so much so that they are often referred to as English partridges to differentiate them from the introduced red-legged, or French, partridge.
Sadly, like may other species of farmland wildlife, from corn buntings to turtle doves, brown hares to fumitory and dozens of pollinating insects, grey partridges are now scarce in many areas, and have not been a regular sight at Minsmere for more than 20 years. In fact, in 19 years working at Minsmere, I had only previously seen one on the reserve! Therefore, when one of our guides reported that one was feeding in front of Bittern Hide, I made my way as quickly as I could. I needn't have rushed, though, as it spent the rest of the day happily pecking at the vegetation almost directly below the hide.
The grey partridge has, of course, been associated with Christmas for many years, being the first gift presented in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. Unlike in the lyrics of this popular song, however, you are unlikely to see a partridge in a pear tree, or any tree for that matter, as they are birds of open landscapes (though they will perch on hedges occasionally). Instead, it's likely that the line "a partridge in a pear tree" actually derives from the bird's scientific name, Perdix perdix, which itself is an onomatopoeic description of its call!
This was just one of the many highlights of a superb walk around both nature trails on Monday, made even more special by the clear blue skies and increasing variety of birdsong. In fact, my day had started in style when a raven flew over my car as I approached Westleton - just the second time that I've seen one of these huge crows in Suffolk. There have been several recent reports in the Minsmere area, so it may not be long before they join the long list of birds that breed at Minsmere.
The wildlife on the Scrape is in transition, with numbers of ducks declining and the first breeding birds starting to return. All of the regular dabbling ducks remain, looking superb in their breeding finery, but there are definitely fewer than there were a few weeks ago. The pintails on South Scrape looked particularly spectacular (photo below), while wigeon grazed just in front of the Public Viewpoint. Gadwall are always more subtle, shovelers flaunt their huge beaks, and teal and mallards are already scrapping over potential mates. The pair of smews continues to commute between parts of the Scrape and the small pools that are viewable from the mound by the pond.
Also on the Scrape, Canada and barnacle geese are beginning to establish territories, and the raucous calls of black-headed can be heard as their numbers slowly build up. They have now been joined by the first truly "black-headed" gulls, with one of two gorgeous Mediterranean gulls strutting around the islands. If you visit in late afternoon then you may also spot one or two yellow-legged or Caspian gulls joining the herring and black-backed gulls in the roost. Avocet numbers are slowly increasing, too, and they've now been joined by several oystercatchers, ringed plovers and redshanks. In addition, there are still small flocks of dunlins and black-tailed godwits as well as the odd turnstone on the Scrape.
The lesser yellowlegs remains on Lucky Pool, where it continues to chase any redshank that flies within range.
In the reedbed, apart from the partridge, I enjoyed good views of displaying marsh harriers and watched a bittern flying past Island Mere. The latter have started booming, although I haven't been lucky enough to hear them yet. At least two great egrets remain in the reedbed, too. Bearded tits are less visible than of late, and the Island Mere area is perhaps the best place to look at the moment. One of our guides also reported a couple of otter sightings on Monday morning - they have been very elusive recently. On Island Mere itself there are a couple of pairs of great crested grebes, and three pochards were scarce visitors on Monday (photo below).
In the woods there are still small flocks of siskins and regular sightings of treecreepers, nuthatches and goldcrests. It won't be long before the first chiffchaffs return and start signing. Look out, too, for the first comma and brimstone butterflies, while the adders are regular visible at the foot of the sand martin bank (photo by Steve Everett).
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