Wednesday, 3 May 2017

29th April - RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk - Day Two

We decided on not getting up so early today, so rather than repeating yesterday's 4.00am start we opted for an hour extra lie in and were up at 5.00am and away to Minsmere at 5.30am.  The route took us through a couple of typical Suffolk villages, and then past a farm with some lovely old barns.  Just as I had finished extolling the suitability of the farm for Barn Owls, Helen shouted me to stop, she had seen a Barn Owl in the field alongside the road.  I pulled over quickly and we safely got out of the car and scanned the field.  There was nothing.  Then we turned to see the owl flying away from us on the other side of the road.  It must have flown over us as we pulled over.

I drove slowly down the road and pulled over once again.  As I crossed the road I could see it sat on a post, but as I approached it flew off across the field and headed away from me, it was still quite murky and the light not brilliant, but I did mange to get one acceptable shot.

Always an uplift, the sight of a Barn Owl hunting a grass field, this was an excellent start to the day, what else could there be for us.

The weather was a lot calmer than yesterday, and it felt warmer.  There was though a coverage of cloud, but it appeared quite thin and it felt as if this would burn off later.  As we pulled into the car park at Minsmere there were very few cars, it was just light and as we like it, virtually empty.  We walked to the Island Mere Hide, deciding once again to miss out the Bittern Hide. 

On entering the hide we could see the water was very still and calm, almost perfect conditions, nothing could make its way across the surface with out being seen.  As we settled down, out in front of us a pair of Common Terns were chattering away to each other while perched on one of the "benches".  One had just bought in a fish as a gift to the other and walked towards it offering it with its bill

The partner duly accepted, but did not eat the fish there, just flew off.

Both would fly around the mere, but always returning to the same bench.  As they landed the long fine greyish white wings would be raised, and the reflection could be seen clearly in the still water.

It was very still and calm all around, and from the left hand side of the hide the pings from Bearded Tits could be heard very clearly.  These lovely little birds were moving through the reeds, and you could track their movement from their calls.  Finally one appeared at a channel in the reeds and fortunately it was a male, and stayed long enough to get one classic shot.

Back at the bench out on the Mere the Common Terns were taking objection to a Black-headed Gull that also wanted to use the bench.  The Terns though were reluctant to give up their territory to the larger gull and would buzz the gull, and then chase it along the bench, but sometimes the gull would turn on the Common Terns and make it quite clear who was the larger, and scaring the tern off.  The terns though did not go far and came back to fight again.

The Common Terns could be heard as they flew around the Mere, sometimes joined by another pair, but only two ever landed on the bench.  Once again a pair of Tufted Duck came close to the hide, the still water providing the perfect media for reflections.

We had heard the song yesterday, but it was always distant, this morning the buzzing sound of the reported Savi's Warbler could be heard much easier in the calm conditions.  It still seemed though that the bird was a long way from the hide.  This though did not put off a pair of very diligent birders who searched with scopes the scrubby willow bushes that were dotted about in the reeds on the left hand side of the hide and at the back of the Mere.  Their endeavour was rewarded when they found the bird ion the middle of one of the willow trees, and as a result I decided to get the 'scope out and got onto the bird.  It was much too far away for my camera, but I did manage a very poor record shot digiscoped through the 'scope with my phone. 

In real life you could see the warbler turning its head, and could appreciate the variation in the buzzing song as it did so.  Where a Grasshopper Warbler is definitely a reeling sound, like a fishing reel, the song of the Savi's is more a buzzing noise, someone likened it to a sewing machine, but to be honest, I can't recall hearing a sewing machine like that.

It remained in the bush all morning, every so often it would drop out of sight but would return to the same spot when singing.  It became my duty as the finders left to point out where it was to others.  I even drew a small map on the chalk board in the hide.

With the excitement of the warbler over we settled back down to watch the Mere, the pair of Common Terns were back again, and one had caught a fairly large Roach, you could clearly see the red fins.  Its partner though was not interested, porobably too big and it flew off, but the fish did catch the attention of the Black-headed Gull, and the gull chased the tern all over the Mere.  As we watched the chase I noticed a Great crested Grebe, that had caught another sizeable Roach (again the fins are clearly visible) in front of the hide, and was attempting to swallow it.

 It was clearly an enormous meal, and we felt there was the look of concern on the grebe as it kept its head back and tried to swallow the fish.  You can see from this view that the fish was much wider than the neck of the grebe, but some how it was determined to swallow its prize.

 Finally it began to win the battle, and all we could see was the tail.  then it was gone, and after a few sips of water to wash the meal down the grebe swam off, and probably needed a sleep to digest it!

Much more sedate was a Little Grebe that then appeared at  the end of the channel.  It was diving alongside the edge of the reeds, and would appear with what were probably sticklebacks, much easier to swallow.

 We could still hear the pings of Bearded Tits on both sides of the hide, and every so often small birds would fly across in front of us.  One turned out to be a smart male Reed Bunting, and it settled on the edge of the reeds in full view for once.

I remarked to Helen that I hadn't seen a Grey Heron yet this weekend, and then just like in Norfolk when I made the same remark one flew in low over the water, and settled on the bench in front of us.  This did not please the Common Terns, this was their bench, and they wanted the intruder gone.  They proceeded to dive bomb the Heron.

At first the Heron would duck, but after repeated attacks it appeared to be pretty much unconcerned by the terns, and definitely was not going to move away.  It became a face off.

This show of aggression from the terns was a good indicator of what to expect when we hopefully visit the Farne Islands at the end of May.  Finally the Heron did move on, but not as a result of the terns, as they had flown away by the time it flew slowly back across the water and into the reeds.

There have been several pairs of Greylag Geese around the hide, but this morning one pair turned up with seven young goslings with them.

Once they had made their way on to the ground in front of the hide they clearly upset a pair that were already there, and there was some quite noisy exchanges between the parents and this pair, but while they were happy making an awful lot of noise neither actually attempted to remove the others.

The morning was moving on, and the Marsh Harriers were becoming more active, drifting close to the hide, but never too close, probably the reason why the goose family brought their goslings to feed in the reeds in front of the hide.  the Harriers would scour the reeds on either side of us.

One male just suddenly appeared at the edge of the reeds, and appeared to be in real hunting mode, having used the reeds as cover to just appear.  the attack though was not successful and it circled around and then flew away from us in front of the hide.

One pass in front of the hide allowed me the opportunity to follow it closely, and I managed to get one of the better pictures of a Marsh Harrier, look at the eye of this hunter, the key to her hunting prowess

One feature of the calm conditions was the lack of Sand Martins over the Mere, yesterday in the cold and windy weather the Mere was covered in them, today there was no sign early on, and only a few arrived as we sat their.  However they were joined by our first Swifts of the year, two birds appeared high above the Mere.

We had been in the hide for well over two and half hours, and our wait for more Otter sightings was not proving to be very successful, so we decided it was time to stretch the legs and move on to try and find something else.

The path from the hide takes you through scrub and woodland, and along the way there were several male Pheasants with one or two females in tow.  One of the Pheasants is very tame, clearly fed by the visitors and would allow a close approach.  The Pheasant is often overlooked, but you have to admire the beautiful colours in the plumage.

 We stopped for another coffee, and then set out along the North Wall.  Yesterday the wind was cold and very strong here, but this morning it was much calmer, it felt warmer, and as expected the cloud was thinning and you could feel the presence of the sun.  

We opted not to undertake the fruitless task of trying to locate the Stone Curlew, in fact a singing Lesser Whitethroat close by was more interesting.  I managed to see the whitethroat, but only briefly and of course it totally avoided the camera.

This change in the weather had an influence on the birds, and where yesterday the reeds were very quiet, this morning the Reed and Sedge Warblers were singing.  This Sedge Warbler even going as far as showing well at the top of a reed stem.

The Scrape hides always seem to fill quickly, whether this is due to people coming in from the beach on the off chance, or the first place casual visitors head for is not clear.  We stopped briefly in the East Hide where once again the sound of the Black-headed Gulls was overwhelming.  There were though the Avocet close in, and these provided some respite.  Although one or two pairs were also protecting territory, and ensuring that other pairs did not come too close.

We didn't stay long and headed back out into the dunes to look for the possibility of Adders taking in the weak radiation coming from the sunlight filtering through the hazy cloud.  Along the shore the Kittiwakes continued to fly to and fro the Scrape with nesting material that was bound for the outflow rigs where they nest just offshore from Sizewell.

There was no sign of any Adders, but we did find a nice male Stonechat.  Who can resist them.

There were Swallows at the Sluice, but they were mobile and not settling.  We walked on south from the Sluice to the strangely names Lucky Pool.  From the dunes you can scan the pool where there were several Avocet, and Redshank, while on the far side three Bar-tailed Godwits, one of which was in summer plumage.

As I scanned the pool I heard the brief snatch of a Grasshopper Warbler reeling.  Unfortunately it stopped and did not start up again so was impossible to locate.  we made our way back to the Sluice where there were two Swallows, one of which was using the dead branches to preen on.

It manged some interesting positions as it stretched the wings.

We walked through the reeds on the path towards the South Hide.  In the Blackthorn bushes a male Reed Bunting sang from the top.  I always consider the song of the Reed Bunting to be a rather insipid attempt at a song, more an excuse for a brightly plumaged male bird.

We paid a brief visit to the South Hide, and as we entered all the Terns went up on the far side of the scrape, and for once the calls of the Sandwich and Common Terns drowned out the calls of the Black-headed Gulls.

Once again the Avocet just went about their business unconcerned by the antics of the gulls and terns.

By now it was approaching noon, and we took a strategic decision, have an early lunch, and then head back to either the Bittern or Island Mere hide when the majority would be setting off for their lunch.  We did make a short stop though just before the Wildlife Lookout when the drake mandarin Duck was pointed out to us walking behind a female Mallard on one of the islands on the Scrape.  The mandarin clearly smitten by the Mallard.

After lunch we decided on the Bittern hide, and as we approached we were informed that a Bittern had just been seen out in the open in front of the hide.  Typical, but we decided to go up and see what was about.  As we entered the hide there were quite a few people present, and with the buzz associated with there having been some good seen.  Apparently the Bittern could still be seen, just behind the reeds but I couldn't find.  When I eventually did it retreated back into the reeds and out of sight.

With Bittern presumed gone, many people left the hide, and we were able to get some good seats and settled in to wait and see.  the plan was working apart from having missed the Bittern.  In compensation a Marsh harrier drifted close to the hide, and hovered of a patch of reeds looking at a possible meal.

then someone on the other side of the hide called out that the Bittern was coming back out, at first almost completely obscured by the fresh growth of reeds as it lay low across the ground, then finally the sight of a bill appearing from with the green reeds.

It then proceeded to literally creep through the water and reeds, eventually coming out into the open.

the whole behaviour of the bird is so different from a heron or Egret, it moves with a distinct purpose, as if checking where to put its feet while watching carefully all around.  The movement reminds me of the way a Chameleon moves across a branch.

The slow careful approach is extremely important when hunting in the reeds.  The technique employed by a Little Egret, where it dashes about chasing its prey, could never work in the reeds.  The approach the Bittern takes would ensure there was hardly any sound, or movement of the reeds that would disturb any small fish or amphibians.  The feet look large as they are positioned carefully into the water.

Having crossed the open water it didn't just go into the reeds on the other side, but carefully moved down the side, using the remarkable colouring and markings to become almost invisible.  we waited hoping it would turn back out into the open, but predictably it turned back into the reeds and out of sight.

The wind was freshening, and away to the south we could see a nice large open patch of blue sky, the boundary of which was just above us.  We had seen quite a few black flies, like large gnats about amongst the dunes, and there must have been a mass hatching taking place because everywhere we looked we could see Black-headed Gulls along with plenty of Sand Martins and Swallows all over the reeds and high up in the sky.

It was then no surprise when the first Hobby appeared in front of the hide, coming in from the west side.

What then followed was an amazing display from at least two Hobbys, and this all played out in front of us in  the hide, and, on some occasions, even below us

The speed and agility of this falcon was wonderful to watch, and at times they came so close both the camera and the binoculars were a complete wast of time.

rather than chasing the Sand martins the Hobbys were also catching the black flies, doing so with their feet and transferring the catch to the bill in mid air.  With the speed and closeness it was a big challenge to photograph, the task made much harder by the fact that your vision and dexterity was obscured by the hide window.  The shutter release was kept pressed and I hoped there would be some good shots.  This one I was pleased with.

This is the wing position used to brake and stall in mid air, fantastic to watch. 

Some of the passes were close, I am assuming the hide where it was warm inthe sunshine was attracting the flies.

they would move away for a short time, I think heading out over the trees behind us, then would come back around from both sides of the hide.

A real event, and all the better for being able to view at a position of height, normally we have to make do with shots and views from below, or distant over the water.

The hunting technique then changed with the approach now low level flying close over the tops of the reeds.

Then almost as quickly as they appeared they were gone.  We also noticed that the number of gulls had decreased, due probably to the fact that the mass hatching was over and the sheer quantity of flies had declined.

we sat for a little while longer, but eventually decided it was time to move on.  The skies had now cleared and it was a beautiful afternoon with unbroken cloud and in the shady places a very warm sun.  This was all the encouragement the butterflies required and we soon came across several.  A male Brimstone flew past us as we walked the Adder trail, and this Green-veined White settled nicely on the flowers of a Dog Violet.

A male orange Tip passed us, and as we reached the turn for the Island Mere hide there was a female Orange Tip warming up in the sunshine.

By now the Island Mere hide was completely packed.  Unable to get a good view in the hide we stood on the bridge leading to it, and were rewarded when a Bittern flew over our heads and into the reads, few saw it arrive from the hide.

Above us there were a couple more Hobbys, or indeed the same one we had been watching.  There were five seen apparently from the hide during the afternoon.

It was time for a cup of tea so we set off and made our way up Whin Hill.  Looking back we had a great view of the Island Mere Hide and the open water.

As we reached the top of the hill, Helen found a small butterfly, a Small Copper, the first of the year.

Back at the cafe we had a cup of tea, sitting out in the glorious sunshine, and shared a scone with jam and cream, or is that cream and jam?  

Suitably refreshed we headed down to the pond with the intent to walk the circuit one more time around the scrape.  Stopping at the pond Helen, once again was the provider, this time locating the Water Vole hidden amongst the reeds.  It gave itself away by the movement of the reeds as it chewed on a stem.

Just up from the pond there is a bank of Gorse that provides shelter on a south facing slope, and is a good spot for butterflies and other insects.  Movement caught my eye, and what I thought could be a butterfly was in fact a female Large Red Damselfly, another first of the year.
  A further search through the gorse found another Small Copper.

We crossed the North Wall, and headed south through the dunes.  It was as if the Gorse knew the sun was out and it was looking like an explosion of yellow flowers contrasting with the blue sky.

Helen pointed out that close up the shape and arrangement of the gorse flowers look a lot like bunches of Barnacles

Whitethroats were now singing from within the Gorse, and a little further along I found a Peacock butterfly enjoying the sunshine and the Gorse flowers.

A male Stonechat could be seen at the top of one of the bushes, but people walking through the dunes would keep disturbing it.

We decided on one more visit to the Island Mere Hide, and passing the grassland at the bottom of Whin Hill, in amongst the Pheasants and Rabbits was a Wheatear.

The hide was much quieter in both people and birds than early this afternoon, the view from the hide all calm and quiet in the later afternoon sunshine.

We did not stay long as very little was about, we couldn't even  hear the Savi's Warbler singing.  The shortest route back to the car park was up the hill, and this gave us the chance to get a closer look at the Wheatear.

 A little further on there was a Green Woodpecker foraging on the grass, probably searching for ants.

At the top of the hill there is a wonderful view of the Island Mere and the reed bed, and while you can't see every pool in the reeds it is possible to appreciate how much open water their actually is, and to ponder on what could be there out of sight.

Next to us as we took in the view was the Springwatch Studio, now all shut up, and will not be used this year, or for sometime I suspect.  The thought occurred to us that with this view, it would be the perfect location for a new cafe, something to think about RSPB.

Our day was done, leaving at just before 18.00 we had completed 12 hours out in the field here at Minsmere.  yesterday it was the Otters, today it was the Bittern and Hobbys along with a lot of quality supporting cast.  The weather was set fair tomorrow although with a fresher wind, who knows what is still yet to turn up for us.

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