It's been another week of typical April weather: bright sunshine one minute followed by heavy squally showers, accompanied by a brisk and, at times, quite strong wind. Consequently, our summer migrants continue to only trickle in, while a number of winter visitors are lingering.
Two of the latter species have proved to the most popular birds with many of our visitors - or frustrating if you failed to find them! A gorgeous snow bunting has taken up temporary residence in the dunes between East Hide and North Wall. At times it can be extremely tame - after all, they rarely encounter people in their remote Arctic or mountaintop breeding areas - and has even hopped to within a few metres of some lucky visitors. I've only seen it once myself, and that was only after it flew out from almost under my feet!
A snow bunting taken a few years ago by Les Cater
At North Hide, a jack snipe has played a typical game of hide and seek. These smaller, short-billed cousins of the familiar common snipe are even better at keeping themselves hidden in marshy vegetation, and often only give themselves away by their characteristic bobbing motion, like a marionette puppet bouncing on a string! Apart from their size, the best ID features are the lack of a pale central crown stripe and the broad, split supercilium (eyebrow).
As is often the case, many visitors have sat for hours waiting to spot the jack snipe, often remaining unsuccessful. After several failed attempts, I was rewarded with possibly my best ever views of a jack snipe on Monday when it wandered into the open in a tiny patch of open water within the marsh and proceeded to bob merrily as it fed - much to the appreciation of a hide full of birdwatchers, several of whom had never seen a jack snipe before.
This was one of my best ever views of a jack snipe, but the vegetation typically always got in t he way for a good photo!
There has been mixed news about our three long-staying scarce visitors. The pair of smew remained until at least last Friday, but there have been no reports since, so they may have migrated back north. We had thought the lesser yellowlegs might have migrated north too, but one of our wardens has just relocated it on the Levels, still in company with redshanks. This is the first sighting for a couple of weeks! The glossy ibis remains on the Levels or Konik Field, but can be elusive at times and may go missing for several days.
Other lingering winter visitors include two whooper swans at Island Mere, regular flocks of redwings in the woods, several pintails still on South Scrape, and short-eared owl that was seen in the dunes on Tuesday. Sightings of siskins have become far fewer in recent days, however.
Pintails are always one of the scarcer ducks on the Minsmere Scrape
As for spring migrants, apart from chiffchaffs - which are almost everywhere now - numbers remain very low. This isn't unusual for early April, with just the advance guard of many species arriving this early. As most migrants are insectivorous, it pays to delay their return to northern climates until later in the month, by which time more flies will be flying and more caterpillars will be munching their way through emerging leaves. So, for now, there are just a handful of swallows and sand martins feeding over Island Mere (especially in the evening), the odd blackcap singing in the woods, the first sedge warblers in the reedbed, occasional garganeys on the Scrape or Levels, and four Sandwich terns among the gulls on the Scrape.
There have also been a few passage migrants seen this week, including several black redstarts in the dunes, around the visitor centre or on the heath, the first ruffs and spotted redshanks on the Levels and a hen harrier over the heath. These are all birds that pass through Minsmere during spring and autumn but are rarely seen in summer or winter.
A female black redstart around the visitor centre
Breeding behaviour is, however, well underway for some species. Marsh harriers can regularly be seen carrying nesting material over the reeds, and I saw my first bittern courtship chase over Island Mere on Monday. This is where one or more males will chase a female in flight, hoping to mate with her. Several male bitterns are also booming now. Black-headed gulls are also gathering nesting material around the Scrape, and redshanks, lapwings, oystercatchers and avocets can often be seen displaying to potential mates, and you might be lucky enough to see a pair of great crested grebes doing their weed dance at Island Mere.
Other wildlife to look out for this week include a pair of pochards at Island Mere (scarce birds here these days), up to six great egrets around the reedbed, beaded tits and reed buntings in the reedbed, Mediterranean gulls and kittiwakes on the Scrape, dark-edged beeflies around patches of ground ivy or primrose, or stonechats in the dunes. The most bizarre sighting of the week was a mute swan that landed on the roof of the visitor centre on Sunday!
Many of these species also feature in our fabulous new booklet of 75 species to spot at Minsmere, which is now available to buy for £3.50. If you want to see all 75 (plus a few bonus species) then you'll have to visit us several times throughout the year, but April is a brilliant month to get started. One of my colleagues got his count off to a good start yesterday when he found one of the trickier species in the list, a slow worm, near the pond. How will you fare in your search?
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