It remains very wet on the reserve, but despite that there have been a few welcome surprises this week - for the lucky few to be in the right place at the right time.
High water levels continue to impact on both the wildlife and visitors. The Sluice track remains completely closed, with no access at all from South Belt Crossroads to the Sluice, or to South Hide or Wildlife Lookout. The end of the East Hide boardwalk briefly went under water at the start of the week, but water levels quickly dropped enough to allow access again by Tuesday morning. Island Mere Hide is still only open to those visitors who are wearing wellington boots, and the public footpath from the Sluice to Eastbridge is also extremely wet, but visitors can now drive in via Eastbridge.
With such deep water on the reserve, it's perhaps not a surprise that waders have moved elsewhere for the winter. If you walk down to view the South Levels then you should spot a few Lapwings and Curlews (the latter, especially, towards dusk), while a handful of Turnstones might be seen on the Sluice Outfall when the tide is low enough, or a Snipe might be flushed by a passing raptor. The herons and egrets are also best seen on the Levels for now.
Ducks, however, are easy to see from East Hide or the Public Viewpoint, with excellent numbers of Teal, Shoveler and Mallard joined by Wigeon, Gadwall, Shelduck and the odd Tufted Duck. Greylag and Barnacle Geese are generally on the Levels and there has been a steady stream of Dark-bellied Brent Geese passing by offshore.
Dark-bellied Brent Geese by Clare Carter
One of the most numerous birds on the Scrape this week has been Cormorant, with more than 100 birds resting on the central bank at times. Kingfishers are regular, too, but probably the biggest surprise on the Scrape was a lovely dog Otter seen from East Hide yesterday. Otters are more typically seen around the reedbed, but this one was no doubt taking advantage of the deeper water for a change of fishing spot.
Seawatching is generally best at Minsmere during periods of easterly or northerly winds, so I was taken completely by surprise during my lunchtime walk on Wednesday. With the wind from the southwest, I had no plans to scan over the sea, but as I crested the dunes near East Hide a small flock of Brent Geese flew south, low over the waves. Picking up my binoculars for a better look, in the hope that perhaps a few ducks might be joining them, I spotted another Cormorant among the geese. Scanning a little further out, the next bird that I saw was a low-flying Shag - a scarce bird on the lowly-lying Suffolk coast.
As if that wasn't unexpected enough, the next bird to fly through was tiny, black and hugging the waves. My first thought was Leach's Petrel, a bird that had long wanted to spot at Minsmere, but despite the rough seas, surely the wind was in the wrong direction. Perhaps it was just a late Swallow migrating south, though it didn't quite look right. Then it landed on the sea! That was no Swallow. It actually was a Leach's Petrel! What's more, it started to slowly circle, just above the waves, no more than 200 metres offshore. What a bonus! I immediately radioed back to the Visitor Centre, and Alex rushed out for a look. He got even better views as this tiny seabird came even closer before eventually moving off south.
Leach's Petrels breed in huge colonies on rocky offshore islands off the coasts of northern Britain. They return to their underground burrows at night, making them tricky to see well. They spend the winter way out to sea in the Atlantic, but small numbers can be seen from during autumn storms - if the sea is in the right direction!
Other seabirds seen by some lucky visitors this week have included a Great Northern Diver, several Red-throated Divers, Common Scoters and the odd Red-breasted Merganser.
Bittern Hide has proved popular this week for visitors wanting views of the reedbed wildlife without getting wet feet. The highlights there have included Kingfisher, Marsh Harriers, Kestrels, a Stonechat and occasional sightings of a ringtail Hen Harrier, while Red Deer and Otter may also be seen there.
Kingfisher by Nigel Smith
Nuthatches are now regular again on the bird feeders at the Visitor Centre, and Bullfinches may be seen around the North Bushes. The Waveney Bird Club ran their last ringing session of the year yesterday and were treated to a gorgeous Firecrest and several Lesser Redpolls, but the best surprise for them was a Waxwing that flew over early morning. With hundreds of Waxwings already arriving in northern towns and cities, we're hoping that this might be first of several seen around the reserve this winter. I'm sure it won't be the last surprise of the tyear, either.
Waxwing by Jon Evans
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