Tag Archives: avocet

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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Titchwell ducks

I like ducks. A couple of hours spent by the side of a lake gazing at and identifying numerous duck species is time well spent in my opinion. (N.b. as I write this I’m sipping a glass of a very tasty Chilean Cabernet and listening to The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave. How much better can life get?)

Anyway, back to the ducks. Inbetween chasing swifts with my camera and snapping marsh harriers and avocets there were several species of duck availing themselves of the bounty supplied by the fresh and salt water mudflats at Titchwell.


Shoveler male

Shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk – skeand) can be seen on the lakes close to Cambridge but it’s rare to see them close up. At Titchwell there are so many birds there that if I wait long enough it’s very likely I’ll get close up, and so it proved with several species of duck. The shoveler is immediately recognisable by his enormous beak which he uses to filter crustaceans, molluscs and other small creatures from the water. The pale blue patch just visible on the upper forewing is just visible on this one and is diagnostic for the shoveler. The blue-winged teal also has a blue patch here but the teal is smaller and doesn’t have the distinctive beak of the shoveler.


Teal female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is the smallest duck and the male plumage is handsome. Like the mallard, the female is predominantly brown but she has the lovely green patch on the lower forewing, visible on the lady above as she stretches her wings. Teal can form big flocks on coastal wetlands out of the breeding season. They are named after their call.


Pochard female (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Another species which kept flitting into view was the pochard. Pochard are not regular breeders in the UK, but in the winter there can be around 40,000 here which have migrated in from Eastern Europe and Russia and they can be seen on lakes, gravel pits and estuaries.


A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach

I think one of the  most majestic ducks is the shelduck. The red beak, black head, and brown, white and black body make it very distinctive. Shelduck are big too, almost, but not quite, the size of a small goose. They were persecuted in some sandy areas of the UK in the 19th century apparently because they competed with rabbits for burrows. Which sounds to me like any excuse, because why would anyone worry about a few homeless rabbits! Despite that there are now around 60,000 individuals overwintering in the UK and around 11,000 breeding pairs. The conservation status is amber in the UK but it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole.

The iconic avocet

‘Iconic’ is a word that is overused, but in the case of the avocet it is entirely appropriate. Those of you from the UK – and possibly some of you from further afield – may know that in the UK the avocet is the emblem of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB.

A trio of avocet feeding on the water at RSPB Titchwell as a pair of swift hunt winged insects just overhead

The avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta, Dansk: klyde) had all but died out – in fact it may have totally died out – in the UK in the 19th century, but in the 1940’s a breeding population from the European mainland re-established itself when the coastal mudflats along the east coast of England were flooded as a defensive measure against a possible German invasion. So there you go, just occasionally something good can result from a war!

Avocet can be seen breeding on the east coast of England in the summer, and they are resident in the southwest during the winter, they are also winter and passage visitors. It is therefore an early symbol of conservation success and it was originally adopted by the RSPB in 1955 as the their symbol to adorn the new RSPB tie. Its continued success led it to be adopted as the RSPB logo in 1970. They are beautiful birds and they can be pretty feisty when it comes to guarding their territory.

The long upturned beak of the avocet, from which it gets it’s generic name, ‘Recurvirostra’, along with its black and white plumage makes it completely unmistakable. I have seen avocet before but not in such numbers and not so close and it was only on this trip that I realised they have very distinctive pale blue legs. So all in all it’s a very striking bird.

The upturned bill has a functional aspect too. It is the upper mandible which is curved and the avocet use it to stir up the sediment by sweeping it across the surface from side to side dislodging crustaceans, insects and worms which they detect by touch. The one below had captured a meal and the dark shadow just in front of its beak is a cloud of sediment churned up by the scything beak.

As with just about every species on the planet, including humans, the main threat to the avocet comes from inconsiderate human activity including reclamation of wetlands, depletion of water levels in rivers, infrastructure development and pollution by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), insecticides and heavy metals. Despite that, the global population is estimated to be between 210-460,000 individuals. It’s unclear if those numbers are stable, but as some populations decline others are increasing. So hopefully they’re OK for the time being.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in non-blogging stuff in the last month so I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with all your blogs. The pace is unlikely to let up before September but I’ll try to visit as many as I can in the meantime. I will be back!