Yesterday was Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi, or three wise men, at the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The Magi travelled many miles from the East to reach the stable. Whatever your religious beliefs, this story seems rather apt based on some of the sightings over the last few days as birds have been arriving from the east.
First, came the small flock of 14 waxwings that I mentioned in last week's blog. Sadly they were flushed by a sparrowhawk soon after being spotted on Thursday, and didn't return to Minsmere. What was presumably the same flock was in nearby Leiston on Friday before moving on. We hope that more waxwings might arrive as berry supplies run out and temperatures drop on the near continent, so we have baited a few trees near the visitor centre with apples. These have certainly proved popular with blue and great tits, pheasants and grey squirrels.
Then came the exciting news this morning that a rough-legged buzzard had been spotted over the South Levels. Like waxwings, rough-legged buzzards breed in Scandinavia and across much of the forested Siberian taiga and move south and west in varying numbers in winter. In a normal year only a handful of rough-legged buzzards will arrive in the UK, but occasionally there will be a bigger influx. This is likely to occur when a successful breeding season is followed by a colder than normal winter.
Rough-legged buzzards are variable birds, like their commoner cousins, and can be tricky to separate from common buzzards. If seen well in flight they are longer winged and have a broad white base to the tail. Perched birds need more care, especially when seen at distance as today's bird was when I saw it from Bittern Hide. With patience it was possible to see the tail pattern when the bird stretched its wings. It was also noticeably pale headed, but some common buzzards can be at least as pale. The shaggy legs that give the bird it's name can only be seen at distance.
Rough-legged buzzard by Malcolm James. This one was photographed in the dunes in autumn 2015.
Although there have been birds wintering around the regular sites of Orfordness (about 10 miles south) and Haddiscoe (about 20 miles north), sightings of rough-legged buzzards at Minsmere usually involve the occasion fly over, so it was nice to see this bird perched, even if it was some distance away. Whether it stays for long remains to be seen.
There are plenty of other highlights to report from the last few days too. Two of our regular visitors spotted a woodcock feeding in front of Island mere Hide at first light on Saturday, and later saw a kingfisher from the same hide. Both sightings were unexpected as the former is usually flushed from woodland paths and the latter has been scarce at Minsmere this year. A great white egret was seen at Bittern Hide on Saturday, and at least one firecrest continues to be reported from the North Bushes - except when I'm there. A ringtail hen harrier has been roosting in front of Bittern Hide on most evenings for the last week or so, but it didn't come in this evening. There were about a dozen marsh harriers though.
Talking of roosting birds, we think the starlings are still at Dingle Marshes, but we've not had any reports for a couple of days.
There have been regular otter sightings at Island Mere, and a stoat was filmed catching a rabbit in the car park yesterday, until it was chased off by a larger, braver rabbit. In a similar vein, a sparrowhawk was seen eating a grey squirrel in the North Bushes on Saturday morning - an unusual prey item.
Stoat with rabbit by Ray Wilby, showing just how large the prey item is in relation to the predator
Elsewhere, there are up to four pintails and three avocets among the ducks and lapwings on the Scrape, and there have also been a few dunlins and turnstones seen. Up to four snipe and a water rail can be seen feeding outside Island mere, but the bitterns have become quite elusive. The family of whooper swan has become less faithful to the pool behind South Hide, with regular sightings at Bittern Hide, too. Two Dartford warblers and a stonechat can be seen in the dunes, and red-throated divers and common scoters are usually offshore. If you are lucky enough to come across a flock of siskins feeding in the alders, check them carefully as there have been a few sightings of lesser redpolls in the last week.
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