We've had a couple of gorgeous days to start the week, and the wildlife has certainly taken advantage. There has been a noticeable increase in gulls and avocets on the Scrape, an arrival of new migrants and the first obvious emergence of a few insects to keep everyone happy - plus the continuing presence of a lesser yellowlegs, glossy ibis and pair of smew for a bit more variety.

My week started well when I spotted a sparrowhawk displaying over the woods as I arrived on Monday, then heard my first booming bittern of the year from the visitor centre. I could also hear marsh harriers calling overhead, but they were so high up that it took me a while to spot them!

As a mid morning meeting outside the cafe came to a close a message over the radio alerted us to a red kite drifting overhead. This was one of at least five that were seen on Monday. Such movements are typical of sunny spring days with a high pressure system overhead, so we could see more later this week.

One of our regular visitors, Les, then called us over to see the very dapper male black redstart that was feeding along the fenceline around the sand martin bank - a pair had arrived on Sunday. Black redstarts are scarce breeding birds in the UK, mainly around large factories and quarries, often near the coast. In the 1940s they were known as Blitz birds as they colonised the bomb craters across London. A few also spend the winter in widely scattered locations, whilst many more pass through on spring and autumn migration, with mid March being a typical time to see them at Minsmere. However, if you visit mainland Europe then black redstart is the common garden bird that sings from every roof, often replacing "our" robins.

Black redstart by Nigel Smith

After lunch I decided to head our round the woods in search of the UK's joint smallest bird, the firecrest. Like the black redstart, they are scarce but widespread and can be seen throughout the year, with March being one of the best times to spot these tiny birds. One had been reported near the car park, while the rhododendron tunnel is also a good place to try, so that was where I headed. Before I got there I was alerted by a high pitched song that I wasn't familiar with. It wasn't a firecrest, however, but an equally tiny treecreeper, singing between busy bouts of feeding by probing its slender beak beneath the bark.

My search for a firecrest on Monday proved unsuccessful, but from Whin Hill I could spot a couple of great egrets feeding in a reedbed pool alongside their smaller cousins. Minutes later I returned to Whin Hill hoping to catch a glimpse of two common cranes that had just taken off from the Levels. This is the UK's tallest bird, standing almost two metres tall and with a wingspan to match. Pairs often wander from the small populations in the Broads or Fens during the spring, and this time I was lucky as the pair circled higher to catch a thermal before cruising low over Island Mere, then circling away to the north. The cranes were seen again briefly yesterday.

 Another "big" bird that has become more frequent recently is the raven. It's not many years ago that the UK's biggest crow was confined to the uplands of the north and west, with only the occasional migrant seen in the east. As the population recovers form the impacts of pesticides in the 1960s and long-term persecution, ravens (like buzzards and red kites before them) have spread east, with a handful of pairs now nesting in East Anglia. I only heard the distinctive "kronk" of a raven at Minsmere for the first time last year, and saw my first one here in January, yet there have been multiple sightings over the last few weeks. Ravens nest very early in the early, so these are probably non-breeding birds exploring potential new nesting areas. Could they breed at Minsmere in the next few years?

I had more luck with my search for a firecrest yesterday when one popped out into the open in Sluice Bushes, giving me the perfect opportunity to see the broad white supercilium (eyebrow), black eyestripe and bronze-orange shoulders that distinguish this beautiful little bird from the more familiar goldcrest (note, males of both species have orange crown stripes and females have yellow ones). Unfortunately, as soon as I pointed out the firecrest to four visitors it disappeared into an evergreen bush, so they didn't get good views and I failed to get a photo.

I did, however, take several photos of birds on the Scrape, which is definitely beginning to feel busier as the spring approaches. The most obvious sign of spring is the increasing volume of the black-headed gulls as their numbers increase and they begin to establish breeding pairs and territories.

The sound of the gulls is such a characteristic part of the soundscape of spring at Minsmere that it' s a better indication of the changing seasons than the first booking bittern (which can be as early as late January) of the arrival of the first chiffchaff (which can be confused by increasing numbers of wintering birds). I heard both of those species on Monday, too, so spring is definitely here now.

Another indication of spring is the return of our avocets. Unusually, we had up to 24 avocets throughout the winter this year, but with counts in excess of 150 this week it's now much easier to watch them. This one was feeding close to East Hide yesterday.

Of course, avocets aren't the only waders present. Redshanks, oystercatcher and lapwings are beginning to establish territories on the Scrape, several dunlins and turnstones are refuelling before their journey northwards, and good numbers of black-tailed godwits remain. 

Black-tailed godwit with redshank for comparison

A few snipe remain at Island Mere, too, and they were easier to spot than usual on Monday. This one clearly shows the pale central crown stripe that help distinguish them from the much smaller, short-billed jack snipe that sometimes accompany them.

The regular duck species are all still present too, although numbers are falling as many have already begun their migration north and east to breeding areas. You should easily spot teal, gadwall, shoveler and shelduck anywhere on the Scrape, while pintail and wigeon are best from South Hide and the Public Viewpoint. In contrast, our three resident feral goose species are easier to spot as they begin to establish territories. A few pairs of Canada and greylag geese have already picked their spots, but the barnacle geese are yet to fully settle down. This noisy flock flew in as I sat in East Hide.

Further evidence of spring's arrival include the five adders that are regularly seen basking around the sand martin bank, the emergence of early colletes bees in the same area, increasing reports of buff-tailed bumblebees, small tortoiseshell and brimstone butterflies, the clumps of colt's-foot in flower along the North Wall, and the sweet coconut scent of gorse in the dunes. Another highlight yesterday was a noisy cluster of common toads displaying in pools along the North Wall.

Please note: if you are looking for the adders, please do not stand close to the fence below the sand martin bank. This fence is electrified and has now been switched on ready for the sand martins to return - it helps to keep stoats away from the colony. The adders are also vulnerable to distance so the further away from them you are standing , the better.

Finally, a reminder that you can book you spaces on our spring and summer guided walks - including dawn chorus, sounds of spring, birds for beginners and reptile rambles - at http://www.events.rspb.org.uk/minsmere  

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