Why is it that every time I go on holiday something exciting turns up at Minsmere? Not that I should complain as I was watching some amazing wildlife in Scotland. Staying just around the corner from the Springwatch base in Nethybridge, we were lucky enough to spot red and black grouse, ptarmigan, golden eagle, crested tit, pied and spotted flycatchers, redstart, slavonian grebe, three species of diver, osprey, short-eared owl and red squirrel, as well as a host of more familiar species. We even glimpsed a couple of rarities - Michaela Strachan and Iolo Williams!
As you'll have read in Matt's blog at the weekend, we had a run of red-letter sightings at Minsmere in my absence, though I can at least take some comfort in the fact that I'd probably have missed them all anyway! First was a singing golden oriole along the Woodland Trail, though I don't think it was heard very often.
Then came the discovery on Friday of what was initially thought to be an ortolan bunting, which would have been a great reserve record. Photos later confirmed the identity as a female Cretzschmar's bunting, a species that breeds in Greece and Turkey and has only been a handful of times in the UK. All those sightings had been on far flung islands, so this was not just the first for Suffolk, but also a first the UK mainland. Had it stayed around it would have drawn a large crowd of enthusiastic twitchers, but unfortunately it was not seen again after Friday evening.
Birdwatchers out looking for the bunting the following morning did, however, locate a broad-billed sandpiper - the first Minsmere record for 20 years - but that, too, quickly left. It was relocated again later that day at RSPB Hollesley Marshes, then nearby Orfordness, so at least some birdwatchers have had the chance to see it.
The other big rarity was actually the smallest of them all, but it did at least hang around long enough for me to see it. It was, however, not actually on the reserve itself, but just a few metres across our northern boundary on Dunwich Heath NT reserve. I was lucky this time as I was able to see it yesterday. Luckily, I also heard it, as the bird in question is an Iberian chiffchaff, which looks very similar to our familiar chiffchaff, but has a trisyllabic song, rather than the monotonous disyllabic chiffchaff. This is only abut the fifth record for Suffolk, and it has been reprted flying across the ditch onto the RSPB reserve, so represents the second new bird for the reserve list this week.
Of course, rarities may attract the twitchers, but they are often of passing interest to most of our visitors, for whom our regular birds are much more popular. They might not be easier to spot though, especially if you are looking for our reedbed birds. However, visitors are still reporting regular sightings of bitterns, hobbies, bearded tits and marsh harriers at Bittern Hide and Island Mere, where reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers and reed buntings can also be heard singing. The two Savi's warblers are also still singing at Island Mere, but you're best to arrive early or stay late if you want to hear them.
Male reed bunting
Warblers are still in full song around the woodland and scrub areas, with garden warblers at Whin Hill and the Discovery Centre, willow warblers around the pond and North Bushes, and several whitethroats and blackcaps. At least two pairs of Dartford warblers have young in the dunes, as do several pairs of stonechats.
It's on the Scrape, however, that most of the action is taking place. The 3500 black-headed gulls are certainly attracting a variety of nesting companions. These include an impressive 33 pairs of Mediterranean gulls, and the best counts of terns for several years - 50 pairs of Sandwich terns, 163 pairs of common terns, and three pairs of little terns. The latter are the first breeding birds at Minsmere since 2009, and with up to 50 birds present there could be more nests found yet. There are also up to 100 kittiwakes on the Scrape, plus good numbers of avocets.
Most of the common duck species are still on the Scrape, albeit in smaller numbers than earlier in the spring. You should be able to spot gadwall, shoveler, shelduck tufted duck and mallard, but wigeon and teal may now be bit harder. There's also a late pintail still present. There are also four species of geese to look for. Greylag, Canada and barnacle geese are the feral geese that are usually present, but there's also a pair of escaped bar-headed geese with chicks. This is the second time this Asian species has nested here. The highlight on the Scrape today, though, has been two spoonbills that were actively feeding on West Scrape this morning.
Spoonbill by Jon Evans
Although the weather this afternoon has not been conducive to insect watching, there are an increasing number of species active across the reserve. Norfolk hawkers, in particular, are now quite prominent while other dragonflies include four-spotted and broad-bodied chasers, hairy dragonflies and various damselflies. Several green hairstreak butterflies are still around, too, as well as brown argus, small copper and a few painted ladies.
My star find yesterday, though, was this lovely insect, which I'm informed is called Dendroxena quadrimaculata, or four-spotted carrion beetle. It's always great to find something new and unexpected, and helps to make up for missing out on the week's major rarities.
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