Ducks always dominate the wildlife sightings at Minsmere in January, and this week has been no exception. In terms of numbers, the most numerous species, as always, is teal, followed by wigeon, mallard, shoveler and gadwall, with smaller numbers of shelducks among them.
Drakes are at their best in midwinter. Their colours are incredibly striking, and many are already displaying to attract the drabber females. This makes identifying the females easier too, as you often match them with their corresponding males.
Mallards may be our most familiar birds, but now is a good time to study the plumage intricacies of the females
I have always had an affinity with ducks, dating to back to childhood visits to WWT Slimbridge, and over the years I have spent many hours checking carefully through flocks of the commoner species in the hope that something more unusual might appear.
So far this winter, the large flocks have usually included a handful of elegant pintails and the odd tufted duck or two, while up to 14 goosanders have been visiting Island Mere to roost. We were briefly visited by a female smew in December, but with the arrival of cold weather this week (there were even a few flurries of snow yesterday), hopes are high that more of these gorgeous fish-eating diving ducks may arrive, too.
Female goosanders - photo by Jon Evans
Another feature of winter birdwatching is the regular gathering of red-throated divers on the sea. Although numbers vary depending on weather conditions and tide, it is often possible to see several hundred red-throated divers either resting on the sea or flying around the bay. Frustratingly, there are also days when very few can be seen, and however many are present they may be too distant to see well with only binoculars. However. if conditions are favourable then you may be rewarded with good views. Check carefully among them and you spot the superficially similar (in winter plumage) great crested grebe. Any sightings of any of the other grebe or diver species at Minsmere would be a real red-letter day. There are a few other species to check for offshore, though, including common scoters, cormorants and guillemots. Several of the latter were reported on Wednesday along with at least one puffin and a number of unidentifiable auks.
The highlight on the sea today was a great skua, or bonxie as they are known in Scotland and among many birdwatchers. These large piratical seabirds are most often seen at Minsmere in spring or autumn as migrants, but a few linger offshore throughout the winter. Skuas often look like large dark gulls, but it's a very pale gull that is attracting the attention of birdwatchers in the area this week. The bird in question is a beautiful juvenile Iceland gull that has been seen on several oocasions around Sizewell beach, but we're still waiting for it to turn up at Minsmere. There are, however, large flocks of the five commonest species of gulls on the Scrape: black-headed, common, herring, lesser and great black-backed gulls. There has also been regular sightings of one or two Caspian and yellow-legged gulls among them.
Winter is always a quieter time for waders at Minsmere - apart from the several hundred lapwings that commute between the Scrape and surrounding farmland. Small flocks of curlews, black-tailed godwits and dunlins are usually present on the Scrape along with one or two turnstones and avocets. It will be mid February before the latter begin to return to the Scrape to breed. Snipe are present in good numbers, but can often remain hidden among the tall marshy vegetation. As well several on the Scrape, there are usually three or four snipe hiding in the cut reeds at Island Mere. Yesterday they were joined by a diminutive jack snipe. Apart form being smaller and shorter billed, this scarce winter visitor has a distinctly different head pattern. It is also widely known for its characteristic bobbing action - but be careful as common snipe do also bob regularly, just not as prominently.
Jack snipe (left) has a short bill, split supercilium (eyebrow) and lacks a pale crown stripe. Common snipe (right) is larger, longer billed with a pale stripe down the centre of the crown. Both photos by Jon Evans
Winter is also a good time of year to look for birds of prey. Counts of marsh harriers at dusk have often reached double figures so far this month, and the ringtail (female-type) hen harrier continues to be reported most days. Two or three peregrines are often reported hunting over the Scrape or Levels, and I was lucky enough to spot one on the heath on Tuesday. Other raptors to look for include kestrel sparrowhawk, buzzard and barn owl.
Elsewhere, flocks of tits around the feeders should include coal and marsh tits, and in the woods there may be long-tailed tits, treecreepers and goldcrests too. At least one firecrest continues to be seen most days, either in North Bushes, near South Belt Crossroads or at the Rhododendron Tunnel. These areas are also good places to look for flocks of siskins, which may contain the odd lesser redpoll, with bullfinches often in the car park or North Bushes. Bearded tits and Cetti's warblers may be present at Island Mere or along the North Wall, two Dartford warblers and several stonechats are often seen in the dunes, and there may be odd linnet on the Scrape.
Finally, another starling update. As far as we know the dusk murmuration is still at Dingle Marshes and can seen distantly from Dunwich or Walberswick beach car parks. However, there a brief flurry or excitement on Wednesday evening when 5000 starlings headed low and fast over the car park, going towards Island Mere. We haven't had any subsequent reports of them gathering here yet, but perhaps this was the precursor to them returning. Here's hoping! For the latest information on starlings, please see the RSPB Suffolk Facebook page or @RSPBMinsmere on Twitter.
ACT NOW to help protect Minsmere
Between 4 January and 29 March 2019, EDF Energy is consulting on their plans for Sizewell C nuclear power plant to be built next to the southern edge on Minsmere nature reserve. This development has the potential to cause significant harm to Minsmere's precious habitats and wildlife if EDF fails to ensure their plans keep Minsmere safe. The RSPB is asking people who know and love Minsmere to tell EDF it must be protected from harm. To add your voice to our call for EDF to protect this special place with our quick and simple e-action, visit loveminsmere.org or click here.
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