First, let me start with an apology for the lengthy delay since my last sightings blog. I was away last week, enjoying the half term holidays with my family, while those left manning the ship here were so busy welcoming visitors and making nest boxes that they didn't have time to write a blog in my absence.
I was lucky enough to experience some incredible wildlife sightings during my week off, beginning with the awe-inspiring spectacle of 300+ red kites gathering at a feeding station in mid Wales. It's hard to believe that this gorgeous raptor was on the verge of extinction in the UK when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, and that even when I first visited the same feeding station in 1993 they only had six birds visiting. It's great to know that red kites are now doing so well, thanks to the superb work of the RSPB and other organisations, and it is probably only a matter of time before they start breeding at Minsmere, as buzzards now do.
Just some of the red kites that I saw in mid Wales last week
While we do regularly see kites at Minsmere, it is still a red letter day if we see another large bird familiar to those who live in the west of the country: the raven. We spotted several of these monstrous crows in Wales, but I have yet to see one in Suffolk, and I was again left frustrated at missing one today when Mel, one of our wardens, saw and heard one over Whin Hill.
Another highlight of my holiday birdwatching was slightly closer to home, in the Breckland area around the Norfolk/Suffolk border west of Thetford. Here, for the first time in more years than I can remember, we spotted two birds that have been absent from Minsmere for even longer than that: goshawk and lesser spotted woodpecker. Both used to breed here, and while the former is still occasionally seen on migration (one was over Westleton Heath on Friday), it's now very unlikely that lesser spots will ever return to breed here, as very few remain in Suffolk.
Of course, you're probably more interested in what has been seen here at Minsmere, and the spring-like weather has certainly brought some noticeable changes to the reserve's wildlife, as we discovered when we finished our holiday by exploring here on Saturday. Not only does it now look like spring, but it sounds like it too. Numbers of black-headed gulls are building on the Scrape, and they've already been joined by about 25 Mediterranean gulls; their white wings sparkling in the sun. In fact, we saw eight species of gull on Saturday, including five different species standing in a line: lesser black-backed, Caspian, great black-backed, yellow-legged and herring.
One of the black-headed gulls that has returned to the Scrape
Avocets, too, are slowly returning, with up to 30 birds seen over the weekend. There have been less over the last couple of days, which is not unexpected since numbers often fluctuate at first, but over the next couple of weeks we expect them to return en masse. Please note, however, that our wardens need to carry out essential water control structure maintenance on the Scrape tomorrow, so there is likely to be quite a bit of disturbance at certain times of day. This work will allow us to maintain water levels to suit breeding avocets and gulls later in the spring.
There are several other waders to look for on the Scrape too. Lapwings are definitely the most numerous, but there are also up to 40 black-tailed godwits and several pairs of noisy oystercatchers present. Look out, too, for snipe, dunlins, ringed plovers, curlews and turnstones. Two golden plovers were present on Saturday, and the first redshanks should be back any day now.
While the increasing numbers of gulls and waders on the Scrape are an indication of spring, there are still many ducks lingering too. The flocks of teals, shovelers, wigeons, shelducks, gadwalls and mallards look spectacular against the deep blue sky that is reflected in the calm waters this week, as you can see in the photos below.
Wigeon (above) and shoveler (below)
The long-staying redhead smew also remains mobile around the Scrape, and on Sunday she was joined by a pair. The male looks truly spectacular in the sun, but all three have been giving visitors the runaround as they move around different parts of the Scrape, or to the two small pools that can be viewed from the low mound by the pond. It was from here that I finally managed to see them today, grabbing a couple of poor photos of the male.
Another lingering winter visitor is whooper swan. All eight were reported flying over the reedbed on Monday, and, unusually, one of the juveniles spent yesterday alone on South Scrape.
Another obvious indicator that spring is on its way is the sound of the first booming bittern, and sure enough they started booming right at the start of half term. At least seven males are now booming, and there are regular sightings at Island Mere. Marsh harriers are actively nest building, as well as sky dancing over the reedbed. At least three great crested grebes have returned to the mere too, and little grebes can be heard whinnying from reedbed pools.
The frequency of bearded tit sightings is slowly increasing, but even more exciting is the number of Cetti's warblers that are singing - a welcome increase after the devastating losses experienced exactly one year ago during the infamous Beast from the East. Dartford warblers are regularly showing along the dunes - please remember that these birds are easily disturbed during the breeding season and you will need a Schedule One licence from Natural England to photograph them as they have now started nesting, so please watch them from a distance.
Further proof of how quickly the spring has advanced comes in the number of male adders that are being found basking in the morning sun. As you'll have seen from Whistling Joe's recent article, they are best seen along the Adder Trail, and area in South Belt woods that is demarcated to make them easier to spot without disturbing them. There will be signage in place later this week to make this even easier.
Finally, we've already received reports of at least four species of butterflies - red admiral, peacock, brimstone and comma - with several small tortoiseshells seen elsewhere in Suffolk already, too.
The warm sunshine and unbroken blue skies may be set to end tomorrow, when we may even see a bit of rain, but there's no sign of a big freeze yet, so grab your waterproofs and come along to see how many of these species you can spot.
Looking forward to my March visit starting 16th . CAnt remember the name of the chap who watches the otters from the Island Mere hide - but I have a photo to show him!
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