It's been an exciting couple of weeks since my last post, with a definite shift towards winter wildlife dominating the news. As last week was the half term holiday here in Suffolk, I missed many of the notable sightings, making do with ring-necked parakeets and a red kite over Hampstead Heath, an annual pilgrimage to the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photography of the Year exhibition, some soggy peacocks at Powis Castle in mid Wales, and meeting Baggie Bird - the mistle thrush mascot of my football team, West Bromwich Albion.
While I was away, many families visited us here at Minsmere to enjoy the fabulous Wild Things trail and discover some of the elves and fairies that live along a secret trail through the woods - ask at the visitor centre for directions, as this trail is not marked on our maps! There's even some hobbits hiding along the trail, if you know where to look!
This trail is certainly worth exploring if you like your fungi, with a typically varied mix of weirdly shaped, wonderfully coloured, fungi, both small and large. Some are relatively easy to find, but many require careful searching. One of the smallest fungi along this trail is the poetically named, strangely beautiful fluted bird's-nest fungus.
This tiny fungus is photographed in the latest copy of Nature's Home magazine, where the fungi article also features the similar field bird's-nest fungus, which you can see close to the pond.
The closely related, and even smaller, common bird's-nest fungus is a bit easier to spot at the start of the boardwalk across the pond.
Please ask at reception for details of where to find these amazing fungi, all of which measure less than 5mm in diameter. We'd love to see your photos of Minsmere's fungi, especially if you are able to identify them. Please share them with us via Twitter or Facebook.
Fittingly, given that today is Hallowe'en, owls have featured prominently in the sightings reports for the past week or so. Matt mentioned in his blog that they had found a barn owl during his nocturnal nature walk on Thursday. Since then we've had several reports of short-eared owls either flying in over the sea or flushed from the dunes, where they were presumably resting after a long sea crossing. Up to three have been reported every day this week. These migrants are regular visitors in October and November, but don't often stay at Minsmere throughout the winter. With several arriving already, perhaps one or two might hang around this year. November is also the start of the tawny owl courtship season, so there's a good chance of hearing them hooting at dusk creeps in at the end of your visit.
A typical view of short-eared owl, by Lizzie Bruce
Another migrant bird of prey has also been reported more frequently than usual this autumn, with several sightings so far of merlins, the UK's smallest falcon. Being so small, and lightning fast, they can be tricky birds to spot - I've still not seen one at Minsmere in 17 years working here, and haven't seen one in the UK for at least 10 years! Like the short-eared owls, these falcons are migrants, with most sightings having been along the coast.
While I was away we bade farewell to the last hobbies of the year as they headed back to Africa, but there are still regular sightings of kestrels, peregrines, sparrowhawks, marsh harriers and buzzards, and we've also had a couple of reports of ringtail (female or juvenile) hen harriers this week.
You've certainly had to be in the right place at the right time to see either merlin or short-eared owl, and the same is usually true of otters, but lots of visitors have been lucky with the latter this week. As well as regular sightings at Island Mere, there have been several reports from both the North Wall and North Hide, including three in front of the hide for about an hour at the weekend! One of our guides also watched a stoat chasing meadow pipits int he dunes this week, while a visitor reported seeing what was either a polecat or polecat-ferret in the North Bushes. Polecats are slowly beginning to colonise Suffolk, but with polecat-like ferrets often escaping from captivity it can be hard to ascertain the true identity of these elusive mammals. Please let us know immediately if you see one at Minsmere.
Back to birds, though, as the same weather conditions that have brought in the owls and merlins have also seen the arrival of a good variety of other winter migrants this week, including several woodcocks, one or two bramblings, small flocks of siskins, redwings and starlings, and good numbers of goldcrests. The latter have been joined by a few firecrests, with sightings this week at East Hide, the Sluice Bushes, Rhododendron tunnel and North Bushes, where one was ringed during the last Thursday bird ringing session of the year this morning - the ringers will be back on Sunday in support of the first RSPB Suffolk Go Wild Sportive cycle event.
Firecrest by Christine Hall
A couple of notable sightings in the dunes over the weekend were a shore lark and a small flock of snow buntings, but these could not be found on Monday and were presumably the birds seen a few miles farther north at RSPB Dingle Marshes. Stonechats, Dartford warblers and linnets are still int he dunes too, while offshore our guides have managed to spot a few great and Arctic skuas, eiders, red-breasted merganers, common and velvet scoters and gannets, as well as regular flocks of dark-bellied brent geese.
The recent heavy rain has meant that water levels are notably higher than of late on the Scrape, so it's good to see a small flock of up to 17 avocets lingering much later than usual. Ducks dominate sightings on the Scrape, where a female goldeneye is a notable record (they have been largely absent for several winters) alongside the usual dabbling ducks - mallard, gadwall, shoveler, teal, wigeon, shelduck and a couple of pintails.
A very dapper shoveler on East Scrape this week
Finally, one of our shyer birds always comes out of its shell in the autumn, as it is time for the jays to make the most of the rich bounty of food available. They are very busy collecting acorns and beechmast, which they bury for retrieval later in the winter, when food is harder to find. Although they will find most of them, those that they miss may, in due course, sprout into oak saplings. Here's a jay that I watched in the North Bushes on my short lunchtime walk yesterday.
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