Have you been watching BBC Springwatch from the wonderful RSPB Arne nature reserve in Dorset? If you have, then you will hopefully been enthralled at the superb feature on Minsmere's Digger Alley, featuring two of our wonderful volunteers, Steve and Davene, and their simply stunning footage of the bees and wasps that call Digger Alley home. If you missed it, then you catch up on BBC i-Player.
Digger Alley itself is just starting to open for business, with the first sightings of the Weevil Wolf this this week, but it will probably be a few more days before we see any Bee-wolves or Pantaloon Bees emerging from their burrows.
Not far from Digger Alley, along the North Wall, we have also found a flower that pretends to be a bee in order to attract bees to pollinate the flower: a beautiful Bee Orchid. Bee Orchids are not rare, but can be prone to suddenly appear in new areas for few years, and just as quickly disappear, so they can be difficult to find. They have been seen at Minsmere before, but I can't remember ever seeing one in that part of the reserve. As it is very close to the edge of the path we have put a sign beside it to avoid people accidentally trampling it - and make it easier to find.
By far the commonest orchid at Minsmere is the Southern Marsh Orchid, which can be found along the Sluice track between South Belt Crossroads and Wildlife Lookout, and around the Island Mere area. The best display, and tallest flowers are immediately in front of Island Mere Hide, but the best area to photograph them is around the path junction just before going up the boardwalk into Island Mere.
Southern Marsh Orchid
Returning to bees, and they are very much top of the menu for the rarest bird on the reserve at the moment. A female Red-backed Shrike has taken up residence between the Sluice and Chapel Field, and has been seen catching bees and other large flying insects for the last two days.
In fact, this is the second Red-backed Shrike of the year, as one spent a day around the North Bushes last weekend, when several others were seen elsewhere in Suffolk during a mini influx of the scarce migrant. Red-backed Shrikes were common and widespread breeding birds in the UK until the sixties, but last bred regularly in the late 1980s and are now only seen as passage migrants during spring and late summer. They are also known as Butcher Birds for their habits of skewering beetles and lizards onto thorns for later consumption!
Red-backed shrike by Jon Evans - this is a young bird seen several years ago. Females are very similar, and very different to the colourful male.
The shrikes are not the only scarce birds that have been seen since my last update. The Golden Oriole continued to sing for a few days after that blog (I heard it on my way home just after writing the blog), while both Purple Heron and Great Egret have put in occasional appearances, usually in flight over the reedbed.
A Roseate Tern has been reported on a few dates on South Scrape, although some visitors have been caught out by a second-year Common Tern with a black, rather than red, bill. Roseate Terns are much paler, almost white above, and although an annual visitor to Minsmere they can prove very difficult to locate. There are still two or three Little Terns and a small flock of Sandwich Terns on the Scrape, too, as well as a few Mediterranean Gulls and several Kittiwakes.
Northbound wader migration is almost over, but this has been a good week for watching beautiful summer-plumage Sanderlings skittering across the Scrape, with counts of more than ten on several occasions. There have also been a few small flocks of the tundrae race of Ringed Plovers, and the odd Dunlin, Knot, Turnstone and Little Stint heading north. By this time next week I'm expecting the first reports of southbound Spotted Redshanks returning from the Arctic too. Other waders include 60+ non-breeding Black-tailed Godwits, good numbers breeding Avocets (many pairs with chicks), plus Lapwings and Redshanks.
Sanderling in summer plumage
As well as the two scarce herons mentioned above, Bitterns are becoming more regular as the females undertake their feeding flights in search of food for hungry young. If you sit in Bittern Hide or Island Mere for an hour then you should have a good chance of seeing one. I was lucky on Tuesday as a female flew just metres from Island Mere Hide, landed close to a known nest, then headed off to feed again a few minutes later. Hobbies and Marsh Harriers continue to be seen regularly, but the wind is making Bearded Tits less visible than usual for this time of year. Little and Great Crested Grebes remain at Island Mere, where I watched a lovely family of Mute Swans complete with a brood of four tiny cygnets.
Talking of young birds, there have been a few conflicts between feisty parents trying to deter potential predators from their nests on the Scrape. If a Herring Gull or Carrion Crow flies over it will be hotly pursued by an Avocet, Black-headed Gull or Common Tern. However, one such encounter in front of East Hide this week provided a lot of entertainment as a defensive Avocet went on the attract, forcing a family of Canada Geese to retreat from the sharp bill. I was pleased to grab a photo of the action.
As the weather has finally started to warm up, out of the wind, so the number of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, and this week I saw my first Norfolk Hawker, Emperor Dragonfly, Black-tailed Skimmer and Blue-tailed Damselflies, joining the Four-spotted and Broad-bodied Chasers and other damselflies that have been on the wing for a few weeks. There are also several lovely red-and-black Cinnabar moths around.
Finally, we have some exciting news as our popular Bird Ringing Demonstrations, run by the Waveney Bird Club, are restarting on Thursday. These will run every Thursday throughout the summer and early autumn, weather permitting. They are free events, with no need to book.
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