Tag Archives: Dunwich Heath

Minsmere in wintertime

My meanderings around Suffolk in February inevitably led me to RSPB Minsmere. I’d heard there were bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum), which I’ve never seen before, and smew (Mergellus albellus, Dansk: lille skallesluger) which I’ve also never seen, in residence there. Indeed, theere had been an influx of bittern from Holland due to the fierce winter weather there and numbers were up, so I felt a little twitching was in order.

For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Minsmere is characterised by woodland on the inland side to the north and east with a network of reedbeds and lakes behind a sand and shingle bank running along the coast. It lies between Dunwich Heath and the Coastguard Cottages to the north, and Sizewell to the south. It is a haven for numerous species of bird and my friend told me that on a morning trip there with a dawn start he spotted over 100 species of birds by lunchtime. And I reckon that’s an impressive tally. Many mammals also live and visit here including red deer, fox and otter.

As it is an RSPB reserve there are hides for observing the wildlife and as I set off along the bank which forms the sea defences to find one various gulls and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the sea. I paused to watch a marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) quartering the reedbeds, and then headed on to an open hide where I installed myself to see what was in residence.


The view from the south end of the hide

From the lower right hand window of the hide are the reedbeds of the reserve and from the upper left window is the reactor dome of Sizewell nuclear power station. The power station reminds me that I’m very grateful for havens such as Minsmere but I also wonder why on earth does it have to be just there, the juxtaposition offends me somewhat. But there it is, so I contented myself with looking out the front of the hide and here are some of the birds I could see:


A lone lapwing foraging for sustenance

Immediately in front of my hide, in which I was the only occupant, was a water filled channel separated from the lakes just beyond by a thin strip of reeds, and immediately to the fore was a single lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe). Low grassy islands in the lakes were home to various species of duck, the most numerous being…


Teal, two males and a female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)


Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand), and lurking in the background is a shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

All of these ducks are resident or nigrant breeders and winter visitors and where I am I only see them in winter. According to the BTO the teal is unusual in that it has no other names in the UK, which is an interesting little factlet which obviously needs to be challenged. If anyone knows of a local name for the teal please let me know. Another amusing piece of nomenclature is the shoveler, so named presumably for its shovel like beak and in Danish is known as the ‘skeand‘, which translates into English as the ‘spoon duck’. It uses it’s magnificent beak to filter small molluscs and crustaceans from the beds of shallow water by sweeping it across the surface and sifting the food from the disturbed sediment.

Alas, most of the birds were just too far away for my 300mm lens, but I plan to upgrade my optics this year so next time I post from Minsmere I’ll hopefully have lots of high quality close ups too.

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Suffolk Symbionts

During our trip to the east coast a couple of weeks ago a fair chunk of our time was spent wandering around churchyards and woodland and scrubby heathland. Because the air is so clean in that part of the world the gravestones and the trees, and any dead and rotting wood hosts numerous species of lichen.

A robin watching over the lichen encrusted gravestones in Dunwich St Andrews graveyard

I think lichens are highly under-represented in the annals of popular natural history, but having said that I’ve seen some superb posts from fellow natural history bloggers in the recent past, most notably from  ‘btweenblinks‘ and ‘Montana Outdoors

There have not been so many from this side of the Atlantic though so here’s my attempt to showcase some of my local lichens. Lichens are a symbiosis between a fungus and an alga where the fungus gathers nutrients from the substrata and the alga provides the photosynthetic apparatus. I’ve read that there are around 1800 species of lichen in the UK alone and up to 20000 globally. They provide homes for spiders and small insects, and have provided various dyes for colouring cloth and the active ingredient of litmus pH indicator is derived from a lichen. And they make great pictures:


Oak  moss or antler lichen, Pseudevernia furfuracea

Lichens are difficult to identify without a microscope and reagents for analysing them and the substrata they are growing on, so the identifications in this post are from this guide from the Natural History Museum.

I found the antler lichen growing on a deciduous tree at Dunwich Friary and I think there are probabaly another three species of lichen in this photograph, including the common green shield lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata. I took the picture by standing back a couple of metres and using ISO 400, F/8.0 and shutter speed 1/60s, and there was just sufficient light to make it work. The trees were reverberating with the song of great tits and robins while I was on my lichen hunt making it a very enjoyable couple of hours.


Pleurosticta acetabulum

Pleurosticta acetabulum doesn’t have a common name in my NHM guide. I really like the colours in this image, the background is the reedbeds of Minsmere and the diffuse red/brown of the defocussed reeds accentuates the greens, greys and browns of the lichen.

Leafy xanthoria, Xanthoria polycarpa

The leafy xanthoria was ubiquitous in this part of the world, many of the trees were festooned with it. This one was also at RSPB Minsmere with the reedbeds in the background and I like the warm colours especially as this was on a very cold, grey morning.

Springtime sojourn to the Suffolk coast

Last week we headed off to to the seaside for a few days and our chosen detination was Dunwich, a tiny village on the Suffolk coast which in medieval times was the capital of the region and a thriving, wealthy port for moving cargo and people between East Anglia and the European mainland. It’s an amazing place with very interesting history which I wrote about in a post last year.

We stayed in my favourite inn called The Ship which has panoramic views over the Dingle Marshes which stretch several miles north to Walberswick, which is renowned for it’s annual crabbing champi0nship. It is also where the king of art nouveau, Charles Rennie Mackintosh moved to after he had abandoned architecture to become a watercolourist and where the series of flowers known as the ‘Walberswick collection’ was painted.

The marshes along this part of the coast are full of wildlife, including rare birds such as harriers and bittern, mammals such as otters as well as a host of marsh and heathland plants and the associated fauna. It’s a wonderful place. The view from our window at The Ship was generally dominated by low grey cloud which occasionally saw fit to rain on us, but even so the wildlife was much in evidence without even leaving the inn:


The tree opposite our window played host to numerous small birds including this house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse)
And a couple of hundred metres beyond the tree were some pools of rainwater where lapwing and these teal were on parade each morningAnd beyond that was a ditch where a little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) was hunting every day

So, as you can imagine, it wasn’t so easy to haul myself away from my nice centrally heated room and my cup of tea and go out into the wintry mornings, when I could sit by the window and see all this! But I eventually extricated myself and walked a circuit of the village taking in the local church and graveyard, the remains of the Franciscan Friary and the woods inbetween, and was very adequately rewarded. The local church has the remains of a medieval leper hospital in its grounds which is a fascinating place historically, but is now inhabited solely by sheep and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). There were no sheep while we were in there but the snowdrops were growing out between the melting snow.


Snowdrops infront of the be-lichened walls of the ancient leper hospital in the grounds of St James church


A lapwing pair pausing in the Friary between displays of breathtaking aerobatic excellence

The Friary is long deserted by the Franciscan brethren and is now a ruin, but it still plays host to the local wildlife. As well as the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) , there was a songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) foraging amongst the  grassy tufts and robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) singing from the trees beyond.

A deciduous tree adjacent to the Friary was completely covered in lichen

I don’t know which species the lichens are on the tree trunk but I think there are at least four. The flat resupinates can be seen on old wood and even brick walls in towns and villages, but the feathery species are much more susceptible to atmospheric pollution and therefore only exist where the air is clean.

Beyond Dunwich to the south is the gorse covered heathland of Dunwich Heath which is owned and managed by the National Trust, and beyond that is the RSPB reserve at Minsmere where I watched a marsh harrier quartering the reedbeds and where another walker told me he had seen smew and a bittern in one of the lakes on the reserve. I went to look there but I didn’t see either, but I did see other birds, and some splendid lichens. Of which more in a later post.

Rotten borough, wonderful wildlife

I spent the last two days in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich and its surrounding countryside is a very interesting place from a political and natural history viewpoint. A paragraph about the political history first:

Until the Great Reform Act of 1832 Dunwich was classed as a ‘rotten borough‘, this was a parliamentary constituency with a very small number of voters for which the parliamentary seat could be bought and sold by wealthy patrons. Prior to 1286 Dunwich was the capital of East Anglia and a thriving sea port but in that year the first of several great tidal surges destroyed a large part of the town, sweeping it into the sea, reducing it to a small number of houses and therefore residents and voters. As a result of its earlier preeminence Dunwich had two parliamentary seats and despite it’s sudden demise retained these seats, with a very small number of voters, until the Great Reform Act was passed, (interestingly, it was his opposition to parliamentary reform which ended the premiership of the Duke of Wellington after he lost a vote of no confidence in November 1830). In the early 18th century the seat was held by Sir George Downing, 3rd baronet, whose grandfather (1st baronet) had built Downing Street in London. He was succeeded by his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, who died childless and whose fortune was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, in 1800. An awful lot of history for a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

Moving on to current natural history, the weather on the first day there was horrendous, rendering nature watching pretty much impossible. But on the second day the weather changed completely and was warm and sunny. The woods around the ruined friary were looking delightfully spring-like with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covering the ground.


Snowdrops growing in profusion amongst moss covered dead wood from fallen branches around Greyfriars at Dunwich.

A pair of goldcrests were very busy feeding in a bush at the edge of the wood which was good to see as they are not a common sight during my regular walks around Cambridge. Heading to the beach to the north of the Friary a pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)  was bathing in a puddle:

And a flight of four mute swans (Cygnus olor) flew by, heading south towards the lakes at Minsmere RSPB reserve:

Later in the morning a walk in Dunwich Forest was eerie. It started in a pine plantation which was all but silent, no birds were singing and there were few other signs of wildlife. Leaving the plantation behind I entered mixed woodland which was still quiet but  more diverse, with a mixture of predominantly pine and silver birch trees (Betula pendula). Birds were singing here but not in the profusion I’d hope for. Many of the pines were exuding aromatic sap:


Sap oozing from a wound in the bark of a pine tree. This stuff was extremely sticky but had a gorgeously delicate scent of pine resin.

The exudate was running down the trunks for several feet and in some cases from multiple places on their trunks, the aroma on a warm spring morning was lovely. A mixture of the earthy smell of well rotted compost and pine trees. Gorse bushes (Ulex europaea) were in flower here too, adding the scent of mild coconut into the mix.

Gorse bush in flower

The ground under the trees was littered with dead wood and moss and numerous fungi including puffballs, parasitic birch brackets growing on live trees and other brackets growing on dead branches, most of which defy identification by anyone who doesn’t possess the requisite expert knowledge. Which, alas,  includes myself.

After the forest I ventured to Dunwich Heath, parking by the lighthouse at the top of the cliff where gangs of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) were wheeling around the carpark and magpies (Pica pica) were bouncing along the ground around the cars scavenging scraps discarded by picnicers making the most of the glorious spring weather.


Black headed gull looking for leftover crumbs in the carpark at Dunwich Heath lighthouse…

… and a magpie using a signpost as a vantage point.

Leaving the carpark I headed down towards the reedbeds which I skirted for several hundred metres. The habitat here is varied with the reedbeds, scrub woodland, heath and waterways.


Looking east over reedbeds at the sourthern edge of Dunwich Heath between the heath and RSPB Minsmere, the sea is a thin grey line in the distance.

Consequently I was hoping to see a diverse range of wildlife. There was evidence that otters are in residence and sheets of corrugated iron had been placed on cropped bracken presumably to provide shelter for reptiles such as adders, grass snakes and lizards. The sun was shining and I was  sheltered from the wind so the conditions for a stroll were nigh on perfect for a February afternoon and plenty of birdlife was to be seen. Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping around the undergrowth and a flock of around 40 lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) passed overhead whilst numerous blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius), great tits (Parus major) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were busy in the trees lining the path.


Cock chaffinch sitting high in a tree singing for a mate.

A single long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) also flew by and landed very close allowing me to take some photographs:


Long tailed tit providing a rare opportunity to take some close-up pictures.

The area around Dunwich is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, the Dingle reedbeds running north to Walberswick are the largest in England and there are large areas of heath and woodland and the salt water lagoons at Minsmere to the south all providing a huge area of diverse habitat. It is also ideally located for migrants from mainland Europe in the winter.

And right in the middle is The Ship Inn where you can get a pint of Adnams  beer to slake the thirst after a days walking. Dunwich is very high on my list of favourite places to explore.