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.