It was another early start, our destination the RSPB flagship reserve, Minsmere. As we drove through the village of Eastbridge just before 6.00am the river was shrouded in mist, the early morning sunshine picking out the lovely colours in the newly emerging leaves on the trees.
Looking out across the reed beds towards the sea the rising sun was casting a wonderful golden glow on the levels, was it going to be a golden day?
As we have done for the last few years we made our way to the Bittern Hide. As we opened the door and walked in we were greeted by some familiar faces, and some we had not seen before but would come to know over the course of the day.
Settling in for the early morning session the Great White Egret was pointed out to us away over in the distance on a pool within the reed bed.
It appeared to favour this spot returning here through out the day.
Staring out of the hide windows across the reeds at first can seem to be a thankless task, but gradually something will happen. First up was a Water Rail, appearing out of the reeds and walking slowly through the shallow water.
As they did last year it made its way across the water to the other side, and into the reeds. through the morning it would do this either by flying or walking.
A pair of Little Grebes were close in. They would swim off apart, but when they came back to each other they would greet with the laughing call they have. One was close in diving just beneath the hide. The light of the morning sunshine enhancing the chestnut feathers on the neck. Diving close to the reeds it caught what is believed to be a Stickleback.
Rather than swallow the fish, it smashed it about for awhile, looking as if it needed to break it up to eat it safely
In fact it never ate it whole, it managed to break the fish up, and then just eat the head.
How often do we overlook the beautiful colours and markings in the summer plumage of this little grebe.
As the temperature rose the Marsh Harriers became active, but it was only males, there was no sign of any females.
Flying low over the reeds showing the grey wing patches and markings around the head they were more intent on finding suitable nesting material, and then taking it to the same spot, where presumably there was the start of a nest.
The talk in the hide though was of how it has been so quiet recently, and that the RSPB should consider renaming it the "Bittern Hidden".
It is normal here to scan across all the Reed Beds, it is amazing how suddenly something just appears as if from nowhere rising out of the reeds. As I looked to the west such a moment arrived, "Bittern coming in from the right"
Normally they just appear, fly over the reeds and then drop down almost as quickly as they have appeared. This one though just kept coming, and coming before dropping in front of the reeds in front of us.
It stood and looked around extending the neck upwards to make it look as thin and as hidden as possible.
It turned back into the reeds and made its way along the edge of the taller reeds. As it did so we could just manage to see it. Every so often it would stop, and point the beak skywards, and it would just disappear from view.
Finally it emerged once again and slowly walked down to the edge of the water where it caught a small fish.
It turned and the made its way around the large reed bed, adopting the stalking walk that keeps the body low and the neck extended. Every so often it would stop, or turn to check out any opportunity.
Eventually it made its way back into the reeds, only to appear again a little further on in a classic Bittern pose by the edge of the reeds.
As you can imagine the camera was constantly shooting, and I have decided not to swamp this post here with Bittern photographs, but will publish a separate post on the Bitterns we saw over the two days at Minsmere.
As this Bittern disappeared from sight I just happened to say, "well that was good how about an Otter now", and the gentlemen sitting next to me immediately said, "there's one now swimming towards the dyke". This was greeted with howls of derision, no one believing him, but he insisted, and as we looked there was indeed an Otter swimming towards the dyke.
Suddenly it was turning into an amazing morning, and even the Cetti's Warblers below us were joining in.
As the dust settled from the Bittern and Otter appearances the Water Rail appeared once more.
And then again the male Marsh Harrier, this time dropping in on the bank of the dyke where old and dead reeds have been left once cleared from the dyke.
It spent some time here, selecting only the best reeds.
Finally the male harrier was joined by a female who like the male started to collect nesting material and dropping into the same spot the male was going to.
The air was cold despite the sunshine, and our thoughts started to turn towards the cafe, and breakfast and a nice cup of coffee, but the hide still had something to give. Along the path by the side of the dyke on the right a Stoat appeared.
And then it ran along the path towards the hide.
And then past the hide and up the path towards the bracken and bramble area. As we settled from that a shrill whistle announced the arrival of a Kingfisher, but it didn't stop, but flew on around the reeds. The decision was now do we stay and see if it returns, or should we go for that breakfast. Our stomachs won out and we headed off to the visitor centre and cafe after a brilliant morning in the Bittern Hide.
Along the way under the gnarled branches of the Oak trees a Blackcap was singing.
The cafe at Minsmere is excellent and we tucked in to a bacon and sausage bap, and coffee. After, we walked out to the Sand Martin bank to where the Sand Martins were busy at the nest holes, their chatter filling the sky as they buzzed above us.
We walked around the the north hide, usually a quiet hide, and it was no different today. The scrape though has been cleared and there is no reason why at some time this could be interesting. In fact looking out across the whole of the scrape it was a lot quieter than it was at this time last year, very little gulls about at all. In front of the hide were several pairs of Greylag Geese. Close in we had the chance to admire the plumage of the Greylag, something I have not appreciated before.
We moved on, passing yet another singing Wren in the bramble a and bracken.
The light was still excellent, and the still water on the north wall was providing some lovely reflections, and backgrounds.
The Greylags once again showing that a closer look is always a good idea.
This Mute Swan too making itself very photogenic.
Close to the wall a male Whitethroat was showing well amongst the fallen reeds.
We walked along the beach in the shelter of the dunes, the wind still very cool, but in the shelter the sun was gaining in strength. We entered the East Hide and again looking out over the scrape it was very quiet. Close to the side of the hide a Grey Heron was hunting in the still reflective water. Its technique similar to the bittern, the steps taken slowly, holding the feet out of the water, but with the head held a lot higher.
And then when it finds something of interest the head and dagger bill moves closer to the water and its prey.
Last year there were many Kittiwakes on the scrape, collecting mud and vegetation and then taking it out over the sea to the outflow platforms of the Sizewell Power Station. Today I could only find two Kittiwakes, and this one was the only one I saw carrying nest material.
Of course there were Avocets, and many seemed to sitting on nests on the islands, their partners not to far away, either feeding, sleeping or preening.
One piece of drama did unfold, an adult Herring Gull some how had a large fish, and attempted to eat it. However it was soon caught out and was chased by two second year gulls.
They managed to force the adult to drop the fish, but as they fought over it a crow nipped in and took it off into the reeds where the gulls were reluctant to go.
We left the hide, and walked towards the Sluice. Ahead of us were several Swallows, and I stopped to try once again to catch them in flight. This was not that successful, but fortunately we managed to find one sitting on a dead branch over the dyke leading from the sluice.
Then one started to fly up the Minsmere river, and dipped into the water to wash, and then flew onto a reed to preen and dry.
Despite the lightness of the bird the reed bent closely to the water and it struggled to balance itself.
We headed back into the reserve, walking around to the South Hide. At first it seemed quiet but gradually birds started to appear. A Greenshank, one of two that were present on the Scrape
There were several Black-tailed Godwits all in different stages of summer plumage. But there was also one Bar-tailed Godwit, and at one point there was the opportunity to view them side by side.
Around the islands there were Dunlin, all showing their black bellies, Redshanks and a pair of very distant Little Terns, one of which you can see here.
We were off again, this time heading for the Island Mere Hide, along the way a Muntjac Deer was feeding just off the footpath.
Last year we had bee told of the Adders that could be seen at the back of the Bittern Hide, unfortunately we never managed to see them. We had learned to day that the fem,ale that had been there was the snake that raided the Goldfinch nest on Springwatch. In the attack the Goldfinches had managed to peck her eyes and blinded her. What happened then was the area where she was became trampled, and visitors were putting themselves at risk with what was now a very dangerous snake. As a result the RSPB have now put in an Adder trail, where an area is roped off, and you can view the basking snakes from a safe distant for the visitors and the snakes.
With the sun out, there was a good chance of seeing one, and as we walked up we could see several people looking. There was in fact an Adder showing. It was curled up alongside one of the plastic tree guards, which would hold the heat as well as the dry leaves. As we watched it began to move, the forked tongue flicking out.
It then moved away to a patch of leaves where it turned to keep an eye on us. The brown colour is apparently the skin colour when the Adder has just shed its skin, something they do when they come out of hibernation.
From the Adders we walked down to Island Mere. This is a new hide, and of completely different design with high windows, and moving stools. Good if it is quiet, but when full a nightmare. It was full, but we managed to get a seat.
High over the mere, Hobbys were hunting, and you could see them catching insects, but I could not see exactly what they were.
Out on the water there were pairs of Great Crested Grebes, but also some intruders. This pair were displaying, but it soon became clear that the real partner was not happy, and flew in to separate them, the intruder swimming away.
It was time for a cup of tea, so we headed back towards the visitor centre, going past the Adder once again and being able to see that she had moved once more.
After a cup tea and a scone we set off for the north wall. At the Stone Curlew viewpoint a Wheatear was showing very well close to the fence.
While the young rabbits were taking advantage of the warm sun, sheltering from the cool wind in an old rabbit hole.
We wandered over the dunce, winding in and out of the gorse looking for anything that might be sheltering and warming up in the sunshine. Helen found a Small Copper doing exactly that, sheltered from the wind and sat on a warm old piece of wood.
We walked as far as the view over the south levels, and decided to give in to the effects of two early morning starts, and settled down out of the wind for a little nap.
I was woken up by a parachuting Meadow Pipit above me, and it stayed in flight singing long enough for me to get the camera.
We decided on one more look from the Bittern Hide, there were still Marsh Harriers about, and there was time for one more Bittern fly past. But mostly we were looking at this scene.
As a result we decided to call it a day and head back to the car. As we walked to the car park, the evening sunshine was emphasising the gnarled oak tree trunks.
An amazing day, at least five different Bitterns, one of which performed superbly in front to the hide, the others just fly overs, but then last year that was all we really saw. Couple that with an Otter, Stoat, the Marsh Harriers, Hobbys and of course the Adders, Minsmere had really delivered. It is without doubt one of my favourite spots, and I could keep coming back and back.