There’s something really special about walking through the woods at this time of year. Not only are they filled with birdsong, but there’s a wonderful scent drifting through the air – especially on a gorgeous sunny day like today. Sadly, I can’t record smell via photos or videos, so you’ll just have to take my word for it – or come along and experience it for yourself.
The scent I’m talking about is the heady aroma of hyacinth that is such a feature of a bluebell wood in spring. The UK is globally important for bluebells, so to walk through a carpet of bluebells is to experience one of the most iconic elements of the UK countryside.
Here at Minsmere, our bluebells tend to emerge a couple of weeks later than elsewhere, so they’ve only just burst into bloom, but what a bloom it is. The deep purple-blue flowers hang in clusters, hiding their white anthers deep inside the bells.
There are some great displays of bluebells in several parts of the woods: just inside South Belt, barely 50 metres from the visitor centre; around Canopy Hide and the start of the Woodland Trail; and along the approach road close to Scotts Hall.
Close to the Woodland Trail, hidden from view for visitors, is a secret hollow in which thousands of pale yellow primroses bloom each spring. Although they are now nearing the end of the flowering season, this patch is a popular place for our staff to explore on their lunchtime walks. Among the bluebells, are two more beautiful purple-blue flowers: wood violet and ground ivy.
Primrose with wood violet
Wood violet (above) and ground ivy (below)
All these flowers inevitably attract insects, and this secret dell has been alive with various bumblebees, cuckoo-bees, nomad-bees, dark-edged beeflies and hoverflies, which n turn attract a variety of spiders.
Of course, any patch of flowers will attract at least some of these insects, as well as the various butterflies that are now capitalising on the welcome spring warmth. Orange tips can be seen flitting along the wetland edge, speckled woods dance in the woodland clearings, and small coppers sunbathe on the short turf of Whin Hill or the dunes. The first painted ladies of the year have arrived from the continent on the south-westerly winds, and large red, azure and variable damselflies have, at last, begun emerging from the ponds and ditches.
Male orange tip feeding on common stork's-bill
Those same south-westerly winds that brought the painted ladies have also brought another wave of migrant birds. The skies above the reedbed are now full of swooping swifts, swallows and sand martins, all chasing the bumbling St Mark’s flies and many other insects. They, in turn, have attracted up to half a dozen dashing hobbies, deftly catching large insects or hapless martins on the wing.
A St Mark's fly resting in gorse. These distinctive flies are usually seen flying with their legs dangling beneath them
Everywhere you walk, you can now hear migrant warblers proclaiming their territories: reed and sedge warblers in the reedbeds; whitethroats along the dunes; blackcaps, chiffchaffs and garden warblers in the woods; lesser whitethroats in scrubby areas such as the North Bushes and near the Discovery Centre. A grasshopper warbler has also been heard at the end of the North Wall.
On my woodland walk yesterday I was caught out by an unfamiliar song. Tracking down the songster I was overjoyed to discover it was a tiny treecreeper. Although I see them regularly, I’ve heard one singing. What a lovely surprise.
Out on the Scrape, the black-headed gulls are now nesting, with one or two pairs of Mediterranean gulls hiding among them. Kittiwakes are gathering nesting material for their nests on the rigs at Sizewell, and good numbers of common gulls are gathering before continuing their northbound migration. Hundreds of Sandwich and common terns have been joined by up to 14 little terns.
Kittiwake and black-headed gull
Avocets, redshanks and lapwings are nesting, and a few other waders have been passing through this week: sanderlings, knots, bar-tailed godwits, whimbrels, grey plovers and dunlins. There are also many families of greylag, Canada and barnacle goose goslings, and our regular pair of bar-headed geese - escapees from a collection somewhere - are nesting.
Many visitors have been excited to watch a family of stonechats feeding their fledged young in the dunes, while others have watched bitterns chasing each other over the reedbeds. A few are still being lucky enough to glimpse an adder near the pond, although sightings are now much less frequent.
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