As June draws to a close, wader migration is gathering pace, with flocks of up to 15 spotted redshanks and more than 150 black-tailed godwits feeding on the Scrape, along with a handful of green sandpipers, ruffs and dunlins. As we move into July, thoughts turn to the possibility of rare waders from Siberia or North America, which regularly turn up among commoner species.
This morning, one such scarcer visitor was located on the Scrape, though this one may only have come south from Shetland or Iceland, rather than further north. The bird in question is a tiny, hyperactive wader with the evocative name of red-necked phalarope.
Phalaropes are unusual for several reasons. They are among a small group of species that practice reverse sexual dimorphism, with the females being the more colourful sex. They take this to a further extreme, leaving the males to incubate the eggs and rear the young. They are also in being waders that spend much of their life swimming, rather than wading through the shallows. What's more, they spend the winter far out to see in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
All three phalarope species are known for their characteristic spinning behaviour, as they swim busily and pick invertebrates from the water's surface. Today's phalarope, a drabber male, was initially found on South Scrape, before being chased off by overly protective avocets and relocating on West Scrape. I eventually tracked it down and watched it feeding alongside a dunlin and about 30 black-tailed godwits. Although the photo below is not a great one, you can clearly see the red neck, pale chin, dark hind neck, buff stripes across the upperparts and tiny size in comparison to the godwits.
The aforementioned passage waders are either failed breeders or have left their mates to look after the young, but here at Minsmere breeding continues apace. The first avocet and black-headed gull chicks are beginning to fledge on the Scrape, and the common terns (below) are constantly crossing the dunes with beakfuls of fish for their hungry chicks on the Scrape islands. One or two pairs of little and Sandwich terns are also nesting on the Scrape, and both Arctic and roseate terns continue to be seen on South Scrape. The latter can be tricky to spot, but up to five have been present among the Sandwich terns. A small flock of kittiwakes is often roosting on the Scrape, taking a break from the noisy colony at Sizewell.
A pair of ringed plovers has chicks on the beach, and several families of whitethroats, stonechats, linnets and Dartford warblers are feeding young in the dunes.
Reed buntings, reed and sedge warblers are singing throughout the reedbed, and all three species can regularly be seen flitting through the reeds as they ferry food back to their hungry chicks. This is also a good time of year to spot families of bearded tits, especially around South Hide and the North Wall. Marsh harriers and hobbies are regularly seen hunting over the reedbed, and keep your eyes peeled for a cuckoo, too, although they have finally stopped singing this year.
Bitterns continue to be seen on their regular feeding flights, but it's another heron that is attracting the most attention in the reedbed. Purple herons are scarce but annual to visitors to Minsmere. They have only nested once or twice in the UK, but are expected to colonise in the near future, following in the footsteps of little, great white and cattle egrets. There has been a purple heron lurking in the reedbed for the last week, but it is usually only seen a few times a day as it flies between feeding pools. Most sightings have been in the Bittern Hide and Island Mere area. (Please remember that Bittern Hide is closed until 12 noon on Thursdays).
A typical view of a purple heron in flight over the reeds. This is one that was present in 2017. Photo by Mark Stannard
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