Friday, 30 October 2015

25th October - Then I'm Spinning and I'm Diving Like a Cloud of Starlings

Our day at Minsmere was concluded with one of nature's incredible spectacles a Starling Murmuration, but not only was the beauty of the sky dancing, but this evening there was also the drama of the hunter and the hunted. 

As we watched the sun set over the reeds, and the golden light change constantly the scene we were expecting to witness the large gathering of birds, and their acrobatics as they prepared to roost for the night.  What we did not expect to see was at least three birds of prey taking advantage of this gathering.

The skies were pretty much clear, and the sun low, casting a golden glow on the reed beds

Small groups of Starlings could be seen flying around and slowly others would join and the groups would become larger.  At firs the birds could be seen over the reeds towards the South Levels, and as they wheeled around in the sky they attracted in a Peregrine.

Other groups joined together making a larger flock, stretching across the sky.

In the above picture you can see how stretched they are but to the right hand side you can see the falcon appearing, and its presence dramatically changed the behaviour of the Starlings just as you would expect.

As it came closer it targeted the centre of the flock

 Looking to split them up into smaller bites

Then flock tightened up together as the falcon passed through them, not necessarily showing its hand yet.

The flock once again loosing up as the falcon moved away.

And then starting to weave patterns in the sky as more birds joined the flock

Other starlings then began to arrive all from different directions swirling around us while over the South Levels against the setting sun the flock continued to dance.

But the danger was not over, the falcon returned causing the flock to ball together once again, but there was also another threat to the right there is a Marsh Harrier.

And the Marsh Harrier decided to join in, heading towards the flock that are already concentrating on the falcon.

The Marsh Harrier then takes advantage of the confusion and panic caused by the falcon, and attacks, you can see it just left of centre with the falcon above it.

We were not sure what the outcome of this attack was, but the falcon continued its attacks this time successfully splitting the flock into two balls.

But in the end leaving without any more drama.

Our attention then turned to north of the wall, where another large flock was gathering.

The video sets the scene of this action, and will then be followed up by the detail shots.

Once again the Starlings were under attack, a falcon, I think maybe a Peregrine again, but I can't rule out a Kestrel, flying straight into the flock causing them to tighten up.

Then turning and heading back concentrating on the birds on the outside.

As we were watching we could hear the rush of air over the Starlings wings, but it was not sufficient enough to drown out the squeals as the falcon finally took a bird from the flock.

A successful hunt the falcon then dropped away from the flock to carry its prey to a safe place to eat.

That particular piece of drama over the flock continued to fly around over the marsh, the water reflecting the birds as they wheeled above the reed bed.

Not long after the attack the Starlings decided to head down into the reeds, and they poured down like water being poured from a bottle.  Other flocks continued to join the chattering masses now bedded down in the reeds.  

We watched and waited, would they decide to come back out for one final encore?  But they stayed in place, and drifts and drabs of other smaller flocks flew across our heads to drop into the reeds.

We stood around waiting, knowing that it was all over, but not wanting to leave the show.  In the end we realised we had to go, and made our way to the car park.  One Starling definitely didn't make it tonight, but one falcon left with a meal.  The numbers are estimated at around 10,000, but you have to wonder as the stragglers continued to drop in whether that number was far greater.

An amazing spectacle with all the added drama of a soap opera.

25th October - RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk

With the clocks going back overnight, it made an early start at dawn not so bad as it can be. We arrived at Minsmere around 6.45, and once booted and suited we were off along the path to the Bittern and Island Mere hides.  It was a glorious morning, as it always seems to be when we go to Minsmere, with the sun just peeping over the dunes to the east bathing everywhere in that golden autumnal sunshine.  As we walked through the woodland area the bracken were being lit up and it was if the area was glowing.

The Oak trees still had the majority of their leaves although they were showing signs of change with yellow and orange colours dotted in amongst the many greens.  The bracken though was in its full autumnal dress.

Climbing up the stairs to the Bittern Hide it became clear that the hide was empty, and when we looked out across the reed bed it was clear why.  Where in May there was open water it had been replaced by a new growth of reeds, and there was  only small patches of mud and water viewable, and the only area of significant water was at the back of the reeds near the main stream.  The stream to the right was also heavily overgrown with reeds.  

We took the decision to move onto the Island Mere hide.  As we left the steps a Robin was making its high pitched alarm call from a pile of dead branches.  I had no idea why, but it was more concerned with calling than our presence.

A little further on we came across a Wren that was feeding in another pile of dead branches, catching insects and small spiders from under the dead leaves.

As we came past the open heath, a Green Woodpecker flew past, combining its laughing call with the heavy undulating flight.  It landed on the grass, that was heavily covered in dew and proceeded to explore the mounds probably in search of ants.

just before you turn to the hide there is another channel of water running through the reeds. This is the area that Springwatch used in June to set out into the water, and reeds.  However once again the reeds had taken over and you could hardly see the water, but above the reeds there was a slight mist hanging, which indicated the warm water was there, somewhere.

This spot is also one of the best places to see Cetti's Warbler but this morning we were only treated to an ear bashing as we walked through the canopy of leaves.

The Island Mere hide was quite busy, but we managed to get a seat and settled down to watch and wait.  Away to the east a Marsh Harrier was sitting on the top of a bush, and beyond it were the ruins of Leiston Abbey Chapel.

It was a still morning which added to the magical start to the day.  The water on the mere very calm, and in places mirror like.  It was in one of these patches of still clear water that an Otter appeared, the silver trail in the water being the first sign of its presence, then the appearance of the head as it swam close to the far reeds.

We were able to watch it come up and then dive under as it swam across, the tail being shown as it slipped under the water only to surface a little further on.

Finally the otter disappeared out of view into the reed bed, and we settled back down to watching the water and surrounding area.  In front of the hide a Snipe seemed to materialise in front of us, its perfect camouflaged plumage hiding it until it lifted its head and the long bill became visible.

Despite the fact that the windows in the hide were all open, there was no breeze, and for once it was very pleasant sitting there looking out at the surrounding scenery.  As we drank our coffee and ate our banana the distant trees looked positively gorgeous as the sun finally highlighted there colour.

The early morning sun seemed to be creating a glow around almost everything.  This Marsh Harrier drifted past the hide, it caught in the sunshine as it passed.  This was a juvenile bird, probably one of this year's brood.

Out on the water there were quite a few Mute Swans, and these were then joined by others from the direction of Eastbridge, the swans coming in low over the reeds the sound of their wings being heard from some distance, as they come in to land they push out their feet raising the head and wings and let the feet act like brakes on the water, then they lift the feet and as they glide pushing them back out as they hit the water.  Not really graceful, but effective.

As well as the Swans there were several Cormorants roosting on the exposed rock islands in the middle of the mere, and a large flock of Canada Geese  could be seen circling over the fields towards Eastbridge.

From nowhere without any sign another Otter broke the water in the reeds in front of us.  Unfortunately it only showed twice before heading down the channel in the direction of the Bittern Hide, and this was the only record I got of it.

There had been some distant flight views of Bittern through the morning but eventually one flew across the mere and I was able to get an acceptable photograph as it headed towards the far reeds.

In the stillness the pings of Bearded Tits could be heard from the reeds, but they never really showed.  Then away to the right a group flew across the top of the reeds and then came down close to the boardwalk that leads to the hide.  I left the hide and edged carefully close to the spot where I could hear them calling.  After a few seconds I was rewarded with a male appearing in an open patch.

The light again was wonderful, and the male bird continued to perform.

Around him there were females, but they were not as open and as brash as the male preferring to stay lower in the reeds and call, the pings ringing out.

The male dropped down into the reeds, and I waited to see if it or any of the females would appear but after awhile I decided that they were not going to show and headed back into the hide.

We hung around long enough for another cup of coffee but then decided to move on, walking back to the visitor centre with the objective of heading out to the scrape.

Walking through the trees there was plenty of activity in the fallen leaves involving plenty of squirrels and a few Jays, one of which stopped to watch us walk past before carrying on with its search for suitable acorns.

We dropped in at the Visitor Centre to see what was about, and then headed out to the North Wall, via a very empty North Hide.  There were several finch flocks about, mostly of Goldfinches, but there was no sign of the reported Lesser Redpoll, or Ring Ouzel.  As we walked along the bank the calls of Bearded Tits rang out, and every so often one would appear above the reeds.  There were several people waiting to photograph them, but after my earlier encounter I decided to pass this time. 

 As we approached the dunes and gate to the beach a Stonechat flew up to the top of the reeds, providing a lovely composition.

The lovely weather was also reflected in the sea, usually we have high winds here, but today it was still and calm, and the sea looked very inviting, not its usual muddy brown colour, but silvery looking south.

And to the north towards Southwold a lovely pale blue.

There were a few Cormorants moving about off shore, but the calm conditions also revealed some other more interesting visitors.  I picked up this diver off shore, and watched while it tackled quite a large fish.

It was quite a way off, and I didn't have the telescope with me at the time.  It dived and I waited, then what was clearly a Cormorant appeared and I just dismissed the prospect of it being a diver. 

A little further on I found another diver, but this time it was definitely a Red-throated Diver, the up turned bill clearly visible.

A little later on I learnt that there had been a Black-throated Diver reported offshore, but the local birders were very dismissive of the report, saying that Black-throats are extremely rare on the east coast of Suffolk, and that they could not believe that was what it was. 

That was the end of it for me until I got home, and looked at the photographs closer.  These are not brilliant photos, but they do show the difference between the head shapes, and do confirm that the first bird I saw was not a Cormorant, but in fact a Black-throated Diver, I had evidence that the report was correct.  Here are the two different divers, first the Red-throated Diver

And the Black-throated Diver

The second bird has a more angular head but not as severe as a Great Northern, and with a slightly more slender bill than that bird.  The red-throated is altogether much more slighter with the upturned bill held high in its diagnostic way.

As we walked along the beach we disturbed quite a large flock of finches which seemed to be mostly Greenfinches with a few Linnets, it was hard to pin them down as they were very active.

We paid a visit to the East Hide, There were quite a few duck, mostly Teal and Gadwall, but there were also Wigeon and several Shelduck.  Along one distant bank there were seven Avocet, and a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits which increased in size as others flew in.

As we left the hide a Wren called from the scrub by the gate through to the dunes.

At the gorse and bushes by the sluice was a solitary Reed Bunting, I would have expected to have found more.

Rather than head back into the reserve we walked along the Eastbridge footpath.  A Great Grey Shrike had been reported yesterday and there was the chance we could find it. 

There was no sign of the shrike, but I did manage to pin down a male Common Darter on the Brambles.

Yesterday there were several moth like insects flying around, and they had also been present today at Minsmere, but I hadn't been able to get close enough to them.  This one though settled on the bramble leaves.

It turns out it is in fact a Caddis Fly, Limnephilus rhombicus, they are found in slow flowing water, and are, as I found quite common and widespread, but that is all I can find on them.

A Cetti's Warbler called from the tree by the river, and then I thought it had appeared on a branch hanging over the water only to realise that it was in fact a Kingfisher.  It didn't stay though and flew off immediately I raised the camera.

We returned to the reserve and walked around to the South Hide.  Out on the pool was a Little Egret fishing in the shallow water, the blue reflection highlighting the bird.

A Shore Lark had been reported in the week and I was keen to see one as it has been quite a few years since I caught up with this lovely bird.  I enquired and was shown where it was, a long way from the hide, in the middle of a bare patch on an island!

In the foreground is a Swallow one of four that moved through heading bizarrely north.

Zooming in, and with a heavy crop you can just make out the Shore Lark, it was though good to see through the telescope.

We moved to what used to be called the West Hide, but is now known as the Wildlife Viewing Platform, the name change designed to attract the younger visitors, and they were certainly attracted.  The hide was crowded, and after we had picked out a very distant Curlew Sandpiper (even further away than the Shore Lark) we left and headed back to the centre for lunch.

I fully appreciate the RSPB's approach to encouraging the younger persons, it is important that we get children interested in nature, but at the same time not all children behave in the hides, and it would be nice to see some sort of provision for those members and visitors that come to see birds without the constant talking pointing and running around that makes the experience
 very difficult.

Rant over, we had lunch alongside a very confiding Black-headed Gull.

Then made our way back out along the north wall once again.  Being out in the open was the best option today.  It satisfied two objectives, one, there could be fly overs, and two the weather was just wonderful for the end of October.

We passed more "pinging" Beardies, and then walked through the dunes to just beyond the Sluice.  We were searching for any sign of Adders in the sheltered spots around the gorse, but  we could only find this rabbit enjoying the warm sunshine in this sheltered spot.

The intention was to go back into the reserve and walk down to the far Island Mere hide once again, but from the corner of my eye I noticed something rise above the reeds on the other side of the river.  Unmistakeable large round brown wings with black carpal patches, a Short-eared Owl.

We watched from where we were and it flew towards Eastbridge.  We decided to go after it, and ran to the sluice,and then followed it in the distance down the path.  Every so often we would see it appear over the bushes, and we willed it to come back towards us.

It didn't and we finally caught up with it in a large field with grazing cattle.  It was then as I watched the first bird that another came into view and settled on a plant stem, albeit rather wobbly.

Both then flew off, heading in completely opposite directions.  We followed one back towards the Abbey Chapel, but it just seemed to disappear so we headed back for the other which we found at the back of the field.

As is usually the way you stand still, watch and invariably they will come back to you, and this one did getting closer.

But it turned out we were not the only ones interested in the owls, there were several Magpies about and they were not happy with them too close and would mob and chase the owl.  At one point though the owl turned on the Magpies and they soon beat a retreat.

The magpies though succeeded in driving the owl away from us until we could no longer find it.  We decided to walk back to the Abbey Chapel, where we could scan the fields and marshland.

We found one of the owls again, this time it was quartering the reeds quite close to the sluice, and we watched as it flew back and forth over the open ground.  Decision time.  Do we head back there or stay where we were and wait.  We decided on the latter and it turned out to be the right decision, it headed back coming closer and closer.

Flying past us with those lazy soft wing beats.

Twisting through the trees and bushes, constantly turning its head when probably a sound caught its ears.

It flew around the grass land in front of us giving some excellent views.

Then headed out across the water and followed the line of the reeds.

And around in front of the sun, the midges being highlighted in the low sunshine.

It then flew away from us heading towards Eastbridge, and we lost it as it dropped behind some distant bushes.  There are a lot of reports around at the moment of these lovely owls, but you have to be in the right place at the right time, and we were privileged to have the time with these two.

We headed back to the footpath, and there was yet another surprise, another dragonfly, but clearly bigger than a Darter.  I watched it catch a midge, then settle on a tree where ai Was able to get a picture, and confirm it to be a Migrant Hawker, a first for me.

Back in the reserve the low sun was just beginning to change the water that light orange colour you get in the winter, three Teal framed by the reeds and the colour.

After a cup of tea in the cafe, and a rest we made our way out to the North Wall to get in place for the final spectacle of the day.  There are over 10,000 Starlings that gather over the reed beds each evening, and the hope was that they would put on a show this evening.

Looking north towards the Dunwich Coastguard houses the marsh was lit up in the evening winter glow.  As we took in the scene a Water Vole swam across the open water.

Lapwing flew from the heathland heading out towards the scrape against the orange sky.

The evening's murmaration was everything you wanted it to be with fantastic sky dancing, raptor attacks and finally an incredible sunset.  The whole event is worthy of a separate post, and I have put one together with all the photographs and story along with a piece of video.  However here are a few tasters to end this post.

As the starlings finally settled in the reed bed, and the chatter could be heard well after dark, the sky was an incredible shade of pink, framing the monolith of the distant Sizewell dome, and turning the waters of the scrape red.

The rising moon was also shrouded in a pink mist.

Like every good performance we hung around for an encore, but it never came and we finally headed back to the car.  As we came out of the reserve and crossed the bridge at Eastbridge the mist had returned and and was hanging low over the fields.

It had been another wonderful day at Minsmere.  This reserve is very special, it will always deliver in one way or another, there is always so much to see.  Today though was another of those oh so special days we have, one of those days when you feel totally privileged to have been able to share the natural world.  We had spent the whole daylight hours here today, and not one second was wasted.