Tuesday, 2 May 2017

28th April - RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk - Day One

The May Day bank holiday allows us the chance of another long weekend, and as in other years we set off early for Suffolk.  However unlike other years this time we decided not to start the trip at the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath, but to head straight to Minsmere.  The forecast was not too good so we decided that the facilities at Minsmere would provide some insurance against possible rain.  This looked an increasingly good decision as we turned on to the M25 and met some rain, but very quickly, as we approached the M26 junction and a long queue of traffic, I began to doubt the decision.

Fortunately the queue evaporated quite quickly, and we made good time, and as we headed into Suffolk the sun broke through, but still with some menacing clouds about.  We arrived in the car park at just before 08.00 am where there were not too many cars about, but signs reminded us that this weekend was in fact the 70th birthday celebrations for the RSPB's reserve and that it was likely to become very busy over the weekend.

The flooded wet land here at Minsmere was first created as a sea defence in World War Two, the east coast being vulnerable to a land invasion by the Germans, and by flooding the low areas the thought was this would make the approach almost impossible

After the war the RSPB had been negotiating with the landowners, the Ogilvie estate, for several years before eventually signing an agreement for land at Minsmere, on 25th April 1947, then just a few weeks later came the news that avocets had been found nesting at Minsmere. These were the first breeding avocets in the UK for 100 years.  It wasn’t until 1963 that the Avocets returned to breed at Minsmere after having bred at nearby Havergate Island, this was the result of Bert Axell, the warden at that time, creating a shallow island-studded lagoon for breeding terns and waders.  As it was always a struggle to raise funds, he helped to build the lagoon himself, working alongside an army of volunteers and helpers he had recruited.  He also developed the then novel concept of hides to enable visitors to get close to the birds without disturbing them. He designed and built a series of hides, some of the earliest to be built at any reserve anywhere in the world.

Today the Avocets remain synonymous with Minsmere and Suffolk, as well as appearing on the RSPB's logo.  Minsmere itself though has gone through significant change.  When I first visited Minsmere back in the eighties the car park was where the pond is today, and the visitor centre was a wooden shack.  All this has been replaced today with a huge car park that accommodates the many visitors the reserve receives, and a wonderful visitor centre and café.  This was built in 1996 and extended in 2012, the café is by far the best café on any reserve I have visited, and we are looking forward to tasting their wares once again
The wildlife has changed a bit over the years too.   

Through careful habitat management, there have been significant increases in numbers of Avocets, Bitterns, Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits, while Stone-curlews, Dartford Warblers and Otters have all disappeared and then subsequently returned.  At the same time, the reserve has lost a few species, with Willow Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipit and Woodcock no longer breeding at Minsmere.

Finally, in the five years since we enhanced our visitor facilities and added the Wild Zone and Discovery Centre, there have been 535,000 visitors.  That is an awful lot of people, but Minsmere has a very useful knack of absorbing these visitors and remaining to deliver the wildlife.

After sorting ourselves out and dressing up for the very cold conditions we headed off around the trail towards the Island Mere Hide, walking past our other favourite, the Bittern Hide, our hope being that maybe today could be the day for some good views of Otter.  We have had brief glimpses in the past of a shape in the water, but never the definite, "yes that is an Otter" view.

Entering the hide, we joined two others who were already present.  Settling down and opening the windows a pair of Tufted Duck were the closest to the hide, catching the morning sunshine that was still with us despite the dark threatening clouds behind us.

Almost immediately the marsh Harriers appeared to the left of the hide, moving over the tops of the reeds with that rocking flight with the wings held in a high "V".  On our trip to Norfolk earlier in the month we had seen plenty, but here there is the chance that they will come close to the hide, allowing some excellent views.  This was the first male.

The one thing about both the Bittern and island Mere hides is that it can appear quiet, with little happening, but the trick is to look, because if you don't look then there is a good chance you won't see.  A Bittern can appear and drop in an instance, and the chance is gone.  This Bittern did exactly that, but stayed up just long enough to allow me to record the event, the first of the year.

The Marsh Harriers continued to entertain, with pairs to the left, the right and over the reed bed at the back of the mere.

The males appeared to more active, scouring the reeds, and coming close to the hide.

One of its potential prey was then seen swimming across the channel, a Water Vole, but it was too quick for the camera.

Then the first Otter call went out, what appeared to be a male, heading from the far right hand side.  We could see it porpoising though the water.  It headed across in front of us, and the best view came as it headed towards the reeds on our left.

Not a bad start, and quite a good view as it swam in front of us.  We sat and waited to see if it would return, and while we did it was a case of watching what else was about.  A smart Great-crested Grebe just in front of the channel.

there was a constant stream of Black-headed Gulls low across the water, and Sand Martins were also hawking insects with also one or two Swallows in amongst them.  While the Black-headed Gulls were visible as they passed, every so often there was the distinctive call of a Mediterranean Gull.  These gulls seem to prefer a place high above the other gulls and I managed to find these two as they headed west over the mere.

The Otter seemed that it was not going to come back, and we decided that after a couple of hours we would move on, and headed back along the trail to the Bittern Hide.  Looking out from the hide the view across the reed bed looked quite bright.

But above us were some dark skies, and as we sat down a heavy shower started up.

As the rain fell, a Cetti's Warbler announced it annoyance below us.

Once again it was a case of continuing to look out across the reeds, waiting for something to appear.  In front of us a pair of Blue Tits moved around the reeds and the small bushes in front of the hide, of course if they had been Bearded Tits they would never have been so confiding.

 On the subject of Bearded Tits we could hear their "pings" all around the reed bed, as well as the song of Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers, again though they kept themselves hidden.

Something can happen at any time, and a shrill whistle to our right signaled the arrival of a Kingfisher flying low over the ditch, across in front of us, and then up onto one of the strategically positioned sticks in front of us.

I managed a few shots before unfortunately it flew off through the reeds and out of sight, whistling as it went.

With the number of Sand Martins out over the reeds it was not a surprise to see our next arrival my first Hobby of the year, out above the reed bed.

 The Hobby drifted away to the right, heading towards Island Mere.  The attention then returned to the Marsh Harriers drifting, on either side of us, over the reeds.  Here a female with the creamy yellow cap on the head.

 Both males and females could be seen over the reeds, and each pair definitely could be seen to have their own territory, and both birds could be seen dropping into the same place in the reeds.  Within these territories both birds would come together.  The display between the male and female birds does include "sky dancing" like we saw with the males in Norfolk, and then an extension to the display with the male and female coming together and locking talons and then tumbling down together.

While we didn't see any locking of talons, the birds would come close together with some squabbling

 And talons would be raised, but no actual locking together.

 As things dried up we decided to head back to the visitor centre and a coffee.  From there we made our way over the North Wall.  It was really blowing hard, the wind cold from the North, and as a result there was very little about, no song coming from the reeds, and in the gorse on the dunes only a few short blasts of Whitethroat that was tucked away out of sight.

We entered a very packed East Hide, the scrape was full of noisy Black-headed Gulls, their calls making for an uncomfortable time.  Closer in were the Avocets, and they seem to be oblivious the the antics of the gulls, as they continue to feed in the shallow water.

Once again pairs feeding in a synchronised way.

Despite the fresh wind there were some areas of still water, usually the puddles, and here there were some lovely Avocet reflections.

While the Black-headed Gulls calls were the most dominant they were joined by the bleating calls of Mediterranean Gulls and those of the Common and Sandwich Terns.  The official count of Sandwich terns was seventy plus, and many could be seen gathered together on the islands in the middle of the Scrape.

Mediterranean Gull numbers have been much higher here this year with as many as sixty having been counted.  The whole area though was dominated by with much in-fighting amongst them, while in between the Avocet just went about their business.

From the East Hide we walked through the dunes.  The only movement out on the sea was that of Kittiwakes flying and to and from the Scrape with bits of vegetation and mud.

They look so much more friendly than their cousins on the scrape, the lovely yellow bill, the light and dark grey on the upper wing, and the black tips to the primaries that appear as if the wing has been dipped in black ink.

We approached the Sluice, and for the first time since we have been coming here in the Spring there were no Swallows about.  They have been reported, but in the cold and windy conditions today they were probably off someone else either warmer, or with more chance of providing a meal.

Turning back into the reserve a Kestrel flew past us carrying its meal for the afternoon, it looks like an unfortunate Bank Vole.

We stopped off in both the South Hide, and the Wildlife Look Out with nothing of interest to report.  In the sheltered spots there were Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler singing but they were low and very much out of sight.

A stop for lunch in the excellent cafe, and then we were back out heading back to the Island Mere hide once more.  Our timing was excellent and we were able to get a seat in the middle, and with the windows wide open we settled down to "look" once again.

Out on the mere there were hundreds of Sand Martins, hawking low over the water picking up the insects that were emerging.

At the Sand Martin bank outside the cafe we hadn't seen any in attendance.  The May Bank holiday weekend this year is 6 days earlier than it was in 2016, and we could see already a difference those days make in terms of the behaviour of the birds and wildlife.

We decided that we would be in for the long haul this afternoon, and settled down, watching the Marsh Harriers again as they hunted close by.

On occasions coming close to the open windows on the side of the hide.

There were at least six Great Crested Grebes about, and while they would keep a distance between themselves for the majority of the time, every so often they would come together.  When this happened on bird would swim towards the other and lay its neck close to the water.

A pair in front of the hide had just done this when one of the pair swam to a patch of reeds, and lay prostrate above the water in the reeds, the other came close, and we thought they were about to mate.  What we presumed was the male started to preen in the same way the Avocets do, and moved from side to side.  But nothing happened and eventually the prostrate Grebe sat up, and both swam together through the reeds.

They stayed close to each other for a while.

But nothing further happened, and once again both birds went about their business on their own.

Out on the water, the Sand martins had now been joined by quite a few Black-headed Gulls that would swoop down and pick the flies off from the surface of the water.  At one point I watched one bird that flew along just above the water with its bill pushing through the surface in the same way a Skimmer would feed.  More normal was the swoop and grab technique.

There were plenty of Mute Swans about, but one unusual behaviour was this Swan that came from the far side of the mere with its wings held high in display.   It swam into the channel in front of the hide.

Close to the hide was a drake mallard, and the Swan swam up to it and stopped, then turned relaxed the wings and headed back out with the Mallard following behind.  It seemed as if it wanted the duck out of there for some reason, and the Mallard obliged not prepared to take on the Swan.

Then some one called out for an Otter on the far side of the mere.  Picking it up it was clear it wasn't just one Otter this time but three, probably a mother and two kits.  The views were still distant but we could make out three bodies swimming in the water.

Together they made their way across the open water towards the reeds at the back of the mere.

All three then swam into the reeds and out of sight, but soon they were out once again, and what we presumed were the kits, started to play in the water.

Still distant views, but the best we have had here at Minsmere.

Then once again they made their way back from where they had originally appeared a little earlier.

European River Otters can give birth to 1 to 4 kits, and are usually born in March to April, the Kits will stay with the mother for 13 to 15 months, which may mean that these kits are around a year old, and almost ready to seek their own way in the world

They swam into the edge of the mere between two trees and through the reeds.  We waited and watched to see if they would come back once again, but it was not to be.  Then another Otter appeared in almost the same place, and swam around diving for a while.  From the size and the fact it was on its own we assumed that this was a male.

As it did so the Black-headed Gulls would circle above the spot where we assumed it would surface.  The behaviour was very similar to that of Gulls and Shearwaters around whales, it became a good way to locate where the Otter was about to surface.  

Then the Otter started to head towards us.

Coming closer, and upsetting the Greylag Geese on the shore.

Then it disappeared for a short while, and we assumed it had come ashore and gone through the reeds.  But luckily for us it appeared once again, and swam even closer past the hide.

Turning at one point to check the hide? 

Before making its way into the reeds to the left of the hide.

It did appear a few times after that, but further away from us and only to surface and breath before diving once again.

In the hide there is a log book that records the Otter sightings, for each day, and it provides a map of the Mere where you can plot where they were seen.  Here ithe image of the map with the notes showing where the Otters were seen and at what time, this also includes the male we saw earlier that morning. 

In all we had watched four Otters for about an hour, and with some wonderful views.  This was definitely the day and sightings we had hoped for .

So what was next?  Well after the Otters had moved on it was back to watching the reed bed, and a white bird in the distance caught my eye.  It didn't look right for a Mute Swan, and as it rose from the reeds I could see the neck was elongated in flight, so not an egret, and I could make out the legs extended behind it and black tips to the wings.  It could only be a Spoonbill, and I watched as it flew across the reeds in the direction of the scrape and out of view.  It was reported from the Bittern hide, but did not reach the Scrape so probably dropped down into one of the pools in the reeds.

Attention then returned to the Marsh Harriers, and this time not talon locking but an actual food pass.  This manoeuvre is more frequently seen with the female with young or brooding, but can also be a part of their display prior to mating. 

Here the male looks like it is carrying a Water Rail, something we did not see today!

By now we had been up since 4.00 am travelled 165 miles, and still had to go shopping for the weekend's food and of course drink, and then settle in to our cottage for the holiday, so we decided to make our way back to the car.  One the way we stopped by the slope where a Treecreeper was working its way along a dead branch with a mouthful of insects.

While a little further along we found a single Muntjac Deer down by the side of a small stream.   This seems to be a frequent location for this small deer.

So on our first day of the holiday we had managed 8 hours at Minsmere, avoided the rain, kept warm (relatively) and had some wonderful views of Otter at the island Mere Hide.  Not a bad start, and with two more full days at this wonderful reserve what else was going to turn up?  The weather also looked as if it would be kind, with the cold northerly wind dying down and becoming more south easterly, always a good direction at this time of year.  As we drove to our cottage in Badingham in the evening sunshine all was very well with the world.

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