Warm September days can be great for spotting insects at Minsmere - or in your garden - but they'd better beware as there are plenty of predators about - even though Digger Alley is now closed for the winter.
During a quick lunchtime walk through the North Bushes earlier in the week I was treated to close views of three different species of butterflies within just a hundred metres or so. This fresh comma looked particularly spectacular as it fed on sugary ripe blackberries.
Speckled woods can be tricky to photograph well as they utilise the dappled shade of woodland glades to maximise their camouflage, or flit restlessly in courtship dances, so I was pleased to catch this one resting on a lightly dappled leaf.
The third butterfly I saw that day was the familiar red admiral - a regular visitor to many gardens - while others to look for at the moment include small copper, common blue and both small and large white. If you are very lucky, you might spot a clouded yellow flying along the dunes. There have been several of these yellow and black migrants from southern Europe seen along the Suffolk coast this month, including a few here at Minsmere, but I never seem to be in the right place at the right time.
Clouds of dragonflies can still be seen around reedbed pools and ditches or along woodland rides. Most of these are common darters, often in tandem as mating pairs prepare to lay their eggs in the shallow water, but there are also several ruddy darters, migrant hawkers and southern hawkers, while willow emerald damselflies are best seen around the ditch between Wildlife Lookout and South Belt Crossroads.
In the dunes and along the North Wall there are good numbers of grasshoppers and crickets, including Roesel's bush-crickets and the impressive, and very accurately named, great green bush-cricket. Once you start looking you'll find various bees, beetles and flies still on the wing too.
All these insects do, of course, attract predators, and several hobbies have been hunting dragonflies along the woodland edge and over the car park. Kestrels have been busy over the visitor centre this week, too, no doubt taking advantage of the glut of dragonflies as well as hunting for small mammals in the grassy field behind the building.
The star attraction this week, though, has been a juvenile red-backed shrike that has taken up residence in the low bushes along the edge of the reedbed between East Hide and the North Wall. Red-backed shrikes were widespread breeding birds in the UK until the 1960s, before declining rapidly due to a combination of agricultural intensification, egg collection and climate change, and last bred at Minsmere in the early 1980s. Only a handful of pairs remain in the UK, so sightings of this voracious predator are generally restricted to spring and autumn when migrants drift onto our shores (especially the east coast) en route to Africa to Central Europe, or vice versa.
Shrikes are expert hunters, catching a range of large insects, from beetles to crickets, as well as small mammals, lizards, and even other birds. The photo above shows our shrike wrestling with bumblebee. When food is plentiful they often cache excess food, impaling it on a nearby thorn bush or barbed wire fence, earning them the nickname of butcher bird. First seen on Wednesday, the red-backed shrike is still present today, though it can elusive at times.
Another scarce visitor seen this week is a pectoral sandpiper, an increasingly regular visitor from North America. First seen on Tuesday, incredibly this is already the third one seen at Minsmere this autumn, and there could be as many as 100 present throughout the UK this week, so there couldn't be a better time to find one on a wetland near you. It's still presetn on West Scrape today.
Pectoral sandpiper by Jon Evans
Elsewhere on the Scrape, wader numbers are falling, with only a handful of avocets and dunlins still present, as well as a few common sandpipers, spotted redshanks, ruffs and little stints, plus several lapwings, snipe and black-tailed godwits. In their place, ducks continue to increase, and flocks of feral barnacle geese are usually present.
In the reedbed, you can still see bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded tits, or hear a squealing water rail, and at least one great white egret is often seen near Island Mere. Little and great crested grebes remain among the gadwalls, mallards and coots on Island Mere.
Finally, it's been another good week for watching nuthatches, marsh tits and great spotted woodpeckers on the feeders.
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