Following on from the theme of my recent blogs, wader migration has been the main topic of conversation among visitors, volunteers and staff this week. In particular, the llong migration undertaken by a surprise visitor to the Scrape.
Over the weekend we were sent photos of a Pectoral Sandpiper that had been seen on the Scrape on Thursday: a regular autumn vagrant that breeds in Arctic Canada, Alaska and the Russian far east and winters mainly in South America. So, when our volunteer reported on Monday morning that he was trying to identify a mystery sandpiper, I naturally assumed the he had spotted the same bird, and looked forward to seeing it myself later in the day. It was, therefore, a massive surprise when the next radio message came through to say that there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper in front of South Hide!
Buff-breasted Sandpiper is on a totally different level of rarity to and any of the others waders seen in recent weeks. A small, pale, long-winged wader, it breeds in northern Canada and migrates all the way to the pampas grasslands of Argentina. A handful of birds are seen in the UK each autumn, usually in places like the Outer Hebrides of Isles of Scilly, having been diverted cross the North Atlantic, usually following hurricanes on the American East Coast. They are much rarer on the east coast, with the only previous sighting at Minsmere being way back in 1961 - more than 60 years ago!
Needless to say, news of this sighting created a sense of panic among local birdwatchers, many of whom downed tools and headed straight to Minsmere. I rushed from the Visitor Centre to South Hide, where I was soon watching this beautiful little bird strutting around the edge of the Salicornia-covered islands probing for invertebrates in the short vegetation. Wow, what a bird!
Inevitably when a lost vagrant arrives, many people ask the question, "Will it get to Argentina?" Sadly, the answer is, "Probably not." While some ducks have been recorded returning across the Atlantic, it is much more likely that most trans-Atlantic vagrants subsequently remain on this side of the ocean, migrating between Europe and Africa, rather than through the Americas. Ultimately, though, we'll never know. What we do know is that it remained for four days, happily feeding on the Scrape. Sadly there has been no sign today, so we can assume that it has now moved on.
With so many twitchers and birdwatchers coming to Minsmere this week to see the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, it's no surprise that many other waders have been spotted too. In fact, following last year's reprofiling work, funded by the Life on the Edge project, East Scrape is looking absolutely superb, and proving to be very attractive to many different species. During the course of this week alone, counts of migrant waders include six Little Stints, four Curlew Sandpipers, 70+ Dunlin, six Knot, Sanderling, Spotted Redshank, two Greenshank, three Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Grey Plover, five Common Sandpipers, four Green Sandpipers, Wood Sandpiper, several Ruff and Ringed Plovers, plus at least 150 Black-tailed Godwits, a few lingering Avocets and varying counts of Lapwings and Snipe.
It's not just waders either. Other highlights on the Scrape this week have included three Spoonbills, two Cattle Egrets (photo below), Little Egrets, Great Egrets, the first returning Pintails, increasing numbers of Wigeon, a gorgeous juvenile Black Tern and a few late Common and Sandwich Terns. There have also been several sightings of Kingfishers.
We've also started work on the final phase of the Life on the Edge project, during which we will be reprofiling West Scrape, to hopefully make this even more attractive to birds, too. Our contractors will be arriving soon to start moving some of the existing banks and islands, and re-excavate deeper areas that have gradually silted up - much like the work that was done so successfully on East Scrape last year. To help with this, our wardens have been out with the Soft-track machine this week, cutting banks on West Scrape and the fen areas in front of North Hide.
The Scrape may have been the centre of attraction for birdwatchers, but the reedbed areas should never been forgotten. Bearded Tits are increasingly vocal, if frustratingly difficult to spot at time. Bitterns are proving quite shy, but are still being seen daily, while up to nine Great Egrets can often be seen around the reedbed. No doubt the Bitterns will become easier to spot once we've cut areas in front of the hides in early October. Marsh Harriers are often hunting over nearby fields during the day, but are easily seen in late afternoon, and several Hobbies are busy hunting dragonflies. There are also Little and Great Crested Grebes, Pochard and Tufted Ducks at Island Mere, plus regular Kingfisher and occasional Otter sightings.
Perhaps the most popular species the week, maybe even trumping the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, has been Water Vole. Up to seven of this cute mammals can usually be seen feeding at close range from the boardwalk across the pond, just a few metres from the Visitor Centre. As if Water Voles weren't a good enough reason to pause on the boardwalk, some visitors have also seen Grass Snakes in the pond, a Convolulous Hawkmoth (the UK's largest moth) spent Sunday resting on the bench, and there are still excellent numbers of Common and Willow Emerald Damselflies, Migrant and Southern Hawker dragonflies and Red Admiral butterflies around the pond!
If that doesn't give you enough reasons to plan a visit this weekend, why not join us on Sunday for an exciting and innovative dance workshop run by Encore East, on the theme of birds.
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