A day out at Minsmere

RSPB Minsmere is nestled on the North Sea coast in Suffolk sandwiched between the heather and gorse of Dunwich Heath and the nuclear power station at Sizewell. I spent a day there at the end of June and the plan had been to make a 5 a.m. start and get there for the sunrise. But the weather on that morning was foul so I started later and stopped off on the way there at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, on the west side of Suffolk, to wait for the rain to abate. Lakenheath Fen was previously owned by the Bryant and May match makers so the woodland there is primarily poplar which is apparently the wood of choice to make match sticks. Consequently the air is filled with that wonderful noise that poplars make when the wind blows.

Despite the pouring rain, which precluded photoghraphy on the Fen, the omens were good. There were reports of a red footed falcon which I didn’t see, but I did see a wild otter, the first time I’ve ever seen one. And I heard a bittern booming, and it was the first time I’d heard that too. So that was two new encounters even before I’d reached the coast.

The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reed beds and hunts fish so stealthily that it’s next to impossible to see until it moves. The booming is an amazing sound and the recording can’t really do it justice, it can be heard for more than a kilometer and the only thing I can liken it to is a distant foghorn. Coming through the reedbeds early on a quiet rain sodden morning gave it a ghostly quality which is difficult to describe. Bittern are rare and to give you an idea of how unusual it is to see, or hear, one, there were only 600 individuals in the whole of the UK in 2010/2011 and only the males boom. East Anglia is a good place to look though because they migrate here across the North Sea from Holland, and the first breeding record was in Norfolk in 1911, having been extinct in the UK in 1868.

From the Fen I headed off in my rainsoaked state to Minsmere. But the gods were with me as the sun came out on the way and stayed out for the rest of the day. It turned into a scorcher.

Common whitethroat male guarding his bushes

On the way into the reserve from the carpark the habitat is woodland which opens out onto grassland before arriving at the fresh water and salt water lagoons. There were reports of stone curlew on the heath and an old twitcher with a telescope claimed to have spotted them, but I couldn’t find them and remained sceptical. But in an adjacent bush was a male whitethroat patrolling the apex, even though it was the end of June he was one of the first I’d seen this year. Pausing momentarily to snap the whitethroat I then wended my way to a hide overlooking the salt water lagoons.

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) snapped from the comfort of the hide

The main hide overlooking the lagoon is, in my opinion, pretty much perfect. It’s a modern and substantial affair and it made me chuckle listening to the twitchers grumbling about how they preferred sitting in a draughty cold shed with limited views and no comfort whatsoever. I’ve got no problem doing it the old fashioned way when it’s the only option, but when the facilities are to hand I much prefer to sit in warmth and comfort with panoramic views through huge glazed windows which can be opened if so desired. And on this occasion the facilities were available, so that’s what I did, and I hope you like the results…

A pair of common terns – “Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick. You treat this place like a hotel!”

The common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) on the left had been sitting there for many minutes, then the one on the right arrived to be scolded mercilessly by it’s companion, and this happened each time the second one came back after a brief fishing trip. The common tern could easily be mistaken for the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea, Dansk: havterne) but is easily distinguished at a glance by the black tip to its beak which is absent in the arctic tern. Both species are consummate aeronauts and fishermen, and they both breed in Europe before migrating south to Africa and beyond.

There were big numbers of all kinds of seabirds on the lagoon including the terns. Gulls, black tailed godwits, a spoonbill (another first ever sighting for me), and numerous ducks including shoveller and shelduck, none of which I got really good photographs of. But this pair of gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk knarand) were feeding close by and did allow me to photograph them:

Male gadwall behind nesting black headed gulls…and the female of the species

Gadwall can often be seen on lakes inland in the winter when they appear drab and uninteresting compared to say a shoveller or a goldeneye, but in bright light in their finest breeding plumage I think they’re quite splendid.

The star of the show at Minsmere is often the avocet. I’ve seen them and photographed them here before but this time they were nesting on a mudflat close by:

The iconic avocet (Recurvirostra avoseta , Dansk: klyde)

Avocet parent-to-be looking after the nest

The other avocet parent was sitting on the nest and occasionally stood up to turn the eggs. It did this every few minutes giving nice views of the eggs which would be extremely well camouflaged when exposed to potential predators such as the great black backed gull.

At one point a pair of peregrine falcons appeared and proceeded to launch multiple waves of tandem attacks on the ground nesting birds. It reminded me of the scene at the start of the film ‘Battle of Britain’ when the Luftwaffe fighters swoop down and shoot up a British airfield. Suffice to say all hell broke loose, it was highly entertaining to watch, and I’ll write more about that in my next post.

It’s not just the birdlife which marks Minsmere out as a special place for wildlife. I knew there were red deer (Cervus elaphus) in this part of Suffolk but I’d only ever seen occasional individuals and one or two small groups in the past. But on the way off the reserve in the early evening there was a big field in which there were several hundred of them.

Grazing red deer

On first spotting these I thought they were livestock on a farm, but then I realised there were no fences that they wouldn’t be able to simply step over so they must be wild. I’d never seen so many of these in one place before.

On an unrelated note (the trip to Minsmere was in June and I’m writing this in August), so far this year in Cambridgeshire there has been a dearth of butterflies especially small tortoiseshell. But the day before yesterday there was one flitting around the entrance to work when I came home and when I got here there were five more on my buddleia bush. And yesterday there were more in the garden. So I hope they’re making a late recovery, along with other hard hit species, from the Lepidopteran devastation inflicted on them by the cold weather in previous three years.

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10 responses to “A day out at Minsmere

  1. What a fantastic place to visit. I was unfamiliar with bittern booming, but have looked up a few YouTube videos of them. It’s categorized as an infra-sound, and I can see why — it seems to be more of a natural landscape sound (water gurgles or foghorn, as you say) than a bird call. Very interesting post!

    • Thanks Sue, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Interesting that bittern booming is infrasound. It’s definitely at the low end of the audible frequency range but at the same time it must be very high energy to penetrate the reedbeds the way it does.

  2. Pleasant narrative, Finn…and wonderful photos, as always. I can imagine what a surprise it was to find so many deer out and together like that. I’m happy when I see three of them together while out on the trail here in our mountains. 🙂

    • Thanks Scott, I’m glad you like the photo’s.

      I had no idea there were red deer here in those kind of numbers. Interestingly I just looked up the areas of The UK, the US and England, because I reckoned that the deer would have a lot more space to spread out in the US. And England is around 50,000 sq miles, Utah is around 85,000 sq miles and the US is 3,000,000 sq miles! So I guess they do have an awful lot more room in your part of the world! Because the UK, and East Anglia in particular, is so intentively farmed there is very little space for wildlife, especially big mammals like deer which have the potential to be very destructive.

  3. I love the Avocets! Their contrasting feathers are striking!

    Our deer here are in great numbers this year too. I have never before seen so many fawns in a summer. This was probably due to a very mild winter, an easy one for the wildlife. I hope the coming winter won;t be an especially harsh one, for their sake!

    • Hello Terry, the avocets are beautiful and it’s lovely to have them back here in the UK and to be able to photograph them on a nests full of eggs.

      Interesting that you had a mild deer-friendly winter, out last winter was long and cold and had a huge negative impact on our wildlife. But I’m hoping the warm summer we’re having now will help it to recover.

  4. What a wonderfully nature-filled day! I think the avocet looks very exotic. It’s iconic with being the RSPB mascot, but I’ve never seen one (or a spoonbill, or bittern). I believe there’s a bit of a problem with red deer now, far too many of them, but I love to see them in the wild. I’ve never seen anything like the size of group you saw though. Great about the butterflies, I’ve seen so many in the past few weeks, it’s as if they’re late but they’re blooming.

    • Hello Lorna, yeah, it was ace! It’s good to hear about your butterflies, I’m really hoping that they all get a chance to recover their numbers this year before the next climatic onslaught.

      The red deer are magnificent. They’re saying there are too many in East Anglia, I think the number I heard was 100,000, which really surprised me, and that they need to be culled. I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s just that our local tories like shooting things.

  5. Vicki (from Victoria A Photography)

    Love the Gadwall (incl the female).
    How lucky you are to get out into the wild and see birds in their natural habitat.
    The Avocet has a rather interesting beak too. It looks like it’s turned up at the end. Do my eyes deceive me?.
    Despite the rain and late start, it looks like a very productive day.

    • Hello Vicki, it was indeed a very good day out and despite the wet start it turned into a lovely day. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you, the beak does turn up at the end. It sweeps to and fro across the surface of the seabed stirring up the crustaceans which it feeds on.

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