It was the summer of 1977; a friend and I had been getting more into bird watching over the last year. As is was the summer and we had just finished our ‘O’ levels we had some spare time before ‘A’ levels started. We had neither been to Minsmere before and had heard a lot about it and were both wanting to visit.
It was a hot summers day and the previous afternoon my father had dropped us both off from Essex at Blaxhall YMCA, where we had pre-booked two bikes to ride to Minsmere on the following morning.
When we saw the bikes, we were not that impressed as they turned out to be two of those small wheeled collapsible types. As it transpired the seats did not maintain heights as we travelled and so stopping every mile or so to adjust as we cycled drove us a bit mad. We were both carrying binoculars, telescope and tripod and I had a camera as well. Even though we had youth and fitness on our side we were both sweating profusely by the time we’d finished the 11-mile ride to the reserve.
Arrival at Minsmere was not like it is today, as you cycled down to the reserve you arrived at a small car park, where the pond near the sand martin cliff is today. This was the reserve carpark, no pond no martin’s cliff. Just a single hut perched above the carpark in front to today’s Sand martin colony. The hut was where we went to get our permits, in those days these were a limited commodity. In our parched state were both hoping for some form of cans or bottles to buy, but sadly we were to discover no drinks but also no toilets. The toilet problem never was an issue, we’d lost so much liquid neither of us needed them all day. Oh, well we’ll pick up liquids in Leiston on the way back to Blaxhall.
Don’t tell our mums but from then on both of them would supply us with food for our visits to Minsmere. Two of everything two flasks of soup, two flasks of tea and coffee, sandwiches, cake, biscuits, and chocolate for emergencies. Only empties ever returned but it may also explain our habit of a bit of dozing in the afternoon’s hides.
If you arrived, under normal circumstances, today after not being on the reserve for over 43 years, you’d really notice the difference in facilities, visitor centre, shop, toilets, café, bigger carpark, work centre, etc. You’d also see more staff and volunteers and a lot more people visiting. I work as a volunteer at the visitor centre these days and amazingly, I have met several visitors who have not visited for almost that long. On the other hand, you would recognise the reserve. The path round the scrape and to Island Mere and back are much the same. The hides also are largely as they were, ok some have had a complete rebuild and others have changed too but generally they are still located where they were. Tree hide has been rebuilt, improved, and renamed Bitten hide. Island Mere hide is completely different in style to its predecessor. The scrape with North, East, South and West hides is familiar apart from a name change of West to wildlife lookout. The surprise in hides would be Canopy hide that did not exist on my first visit.
Like then I still walk the scrape if possible, first followed by the Island Mere circuit in the afternoon or second. So, with half a packet of polo’s (other mints are available, but none were then on site) as our only supplies for the day we set off towards North hide. The view from North hide gave us a first glimmer of understanding of how amazing the scrape was for a vast variety of wildlife. We didn’t get a view of an Avocet, we both needed as a lifer at this point, but there was a probable in the distance near the East hide. The reeds were reasonably high so views were limited, but we still enjoyed a good half hour birding, and of course it was rather nice to sit down!
East hide now this was it! For a relatively new pair of birders we were struggling to know which way to look. You may recognise the military term these days of a ‘target rich environment’, well this was one and included if my memory is correct at least three lifers. This obviously included the avocet. I’m a little ashamed to say that once I learnt to drive Minsmere became a regular site for the two of us, just two hours drive from Billericay in Essex, the avocet became a bird over the years we gradually gave less and less attention to, even coining our own knick-name of blue shanks. In my defence they were not hard to see pretty much every visit except perhaps in winter and their numbers were growing (I’ll probably never be allowed back on the reserve). It was actually only after University we both gave the bird a better credit rating. I moved to work in Northumberland (what’s an Avocet) and my friend moved to Africa. Oh, for views of an Avocet! This gives me an understanding these days of people who come from all over the UK and abroad to Minsmere partly to see an Avocet.
The Avocet is one of those real success stories of the RSPB and Minsmere, but another success is the Marsh Harrier and one gave us long range but our first ever sightings over West hide in the distance. As we left East hide, we were both a bit punch drunk with the variety and numbers of species we had just seen.
South hide next after a short stay near the sluice watching hirundines.
This hide, like West hide that followed, gave us various views of different sections of the scrape. We were excited to pick up more lifers at this point but again I think the main lasting impression was the variety and good numbers of birds that we could pick out with our inexperience ability.
These days when I reach the join of the path to Island Mere and the visitor centre, I usually turn right for the café and a cuppa, not on this occasion. We arrived at tree hide and made ourselves comfortable just as two marsh harriers presented themselves across the reeds in front. And wow one was a male, our first ever sighting of this lovely bird. The brown shoulders and grey and black wings showing off in the sun. There was no sign of a bittern from here, that I’d be hopeful of these days, another success of Minsmere and why the hide is now called Bittern hide. It’s a good place these days also to see hobbies in the summer after the dragonflies.
Tree hide did get us our second mammal on the reserve that day after rabbit, Coypu. In this period, they were a pest damaging crops and reed beds. They had escaped and become quite common in East Anglia. On many visits over the following years we saw one or other of the Coypu pest control vans and several coypus. You won’t see a coypu from this hide these days but it’s not a bad bet for otter. You may also see in the summer red deer in the reed beds.
Our final hide of the day was Island Mere, and one could say we saved the best for last. Again, we were treated to views of marsh harriers, individuals quartering the reed beds. One female even came up from the reeds struggling with a snake. No doubt a grass snake. On the mere and surrounding dykes, we had nice views of both great crested grebes and little grebes. After some time in the hide we also realised there had been snipe in the under growth almost invisible in their camouflage.
At about 3pm in Island mere we were both feeling dehydrated and in need of liquid. We decided to go and get the bikes and find some liquid sustenance in Leiston. If we’d stayed much longer, we would have hallucinated a really impressive list of very rare bird’s grey heron or flamingo, marsh harrier or golden eagle, it was time to leave.
We left with over forty species seen. These days I’d consider that as rather low numbers, I’d also these days be taking an interest in the varied and fascinating array of butterflies, moths (Minsmere has a species of its own one), dragonflies, bees, etc. But to two new birders who were, I admit stumped by a couple of waders, overwhelmed by variety and numbers, and had not yet learnt to use our ears to increase our chances, very happy. Still it got us through another 11 miles on those bikes and planning our next visit.
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