One of the joys of being able to regularly spend time walking around the reserve is that I get to know where certain species are most likely to be seen. For example, I almost expect to hear a Cetti's warbler about halfway along the North Wall or close to the S bend between Wildlife Lookout and South Hide. I also know which islands on the Scrape are best to look for Mediterranean gulls or little terns, or where to look for adders in the spring.

However, the same "inside knowledge" doesn't necessarily apply to our visitors, so some of our commoner species might take them by surprise simply by not following the rules. Just for once I'm not talking about our very showy bitterns here, though you can watch a fabulous video about these not so shy birds below.

One of the birds that catches people out most is a very familiar garden bird. The problem is that they don't expect to see a dunnock breeding in the gorse along the dunes rather than in gardens or woodland. As a result, we find that many of the mystery bird photos that we are asked to identify are dunnocks. Note the brown streaked plumage, which is similar to a sparrow, but with the difference of grey shawl and slimmer insect-eater bill - and a much more tuneful song.

Dunnock singing from a gorse bush by Steve Everett

Two other birds that also often cause identification problems in the dunes are linnet and stonechat. The former are rarely as colourful as field guides show (at least as far as the males are concerned) and many people expect to see them around farmland, while with stonechats it's typically the females and young birds that cause the biggest problems.

It struck me as I walked around yesterday that there is another species that is common in the dunes but might be an unexpected sight for some visitors in this habitat. This is honeysuckle, a common woodland and garden plant whose beautiful flowers are renowned for attracting moths at night. Honeysuckle may go un-noticed by many visitors at other times of year, but it's flowers are very obvious now as it sprawls among the gorse and bramble in the dunes.

Honeysuckle in flower in the dunes

In fact, the dunes are a great place for botanists at the moment, with several more unusual flowers blooming, including sheep's-bit, yellow horned-poppy, sea pea, sea bindweed and English stonecrop (photo below).

Other flowers to look for elsewhere on the reserve include hound's-tongue and biting stonecrop in the car park, foxglove in the woods, southern marsh orchids around Island Mere and Wildlife Lookout, common meadow-rue near Wildlife Lookout and several species along North Wall: bird's-foot trefoil, greater knapweed, oxeye daisy and grass vetchling.

Insect numbers and variety are increasing too, although I didn't expect to see a small tortoiseshell flying across the Scrape. This butterfly has become very scarce at Minsmere in recent years, with any sighting considered a red-letter day, yet yesterday I saw three: one in the car park, one on East Scrape one in the reedbed! Other butterflies to look for include common blue, brown argus, small copper, speckled wood, meadow brown, red admiral and migrant painted ladies. 

It's good to see more dragonflies on the wing, too, including several of the larger species emerging at last. At the pond yesterday I watched hairy dragonfly, emperor, southern hawker and four-spotted chaser as well as lots of azure damselflies, while other species to look for include common blue, red-eyed, large red and blue-tailed damselflies, Norfolk hawker and broad-bodied chaser.

Of course, there are also many birds to spot. Of the more unusual species, we're still getting regular reports of up to six glossy ibises and four great egrets around the reedbed, including one of the latter in breeding plumage, but the purple heron was last reported flying out to sea on Monday evening, so that has presumably returned to mainland Europe.

Bitterns continue to show regularly, especially in flight, as do marsh harriers and hobbies, and our guides have also spotted several red kites in recent days. Other large soaring birds include two common cranes that were seen today and a female Montagu's harrier that flew north early on Thursday morning - to the delight of the few people present at the time.

On the Scrape, there are several avocets now on South Scrape, as well as large flock of non-breeding black-tailed godwits. Other waders include breeding redshank, lapwing, ringed plover  and oystercatcher, a few late dunlins and turnstones, as well as sightings of both little ringed plover and wood sandpiper this week. Up to four little terns remain alongside the common and Sandwich terns, but last week's roseate tern was last reported on Monday. Unfortunately, many of the terns, as well as black-headed gulls, have been reported dead this week. We have informed DEFRA as we suspect this might be linked to the current devastating bird flu outbreak that is affecting many seabird colonies in Scotland. To keep our volunteers and staff safe we are not removing the dead birds.

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