Tag Archives: RSPB Minsmere

Minsmere raptors

Whilst I was at RSPB Minsmere, which I described in my last post, I was expecting to see birds of prey because I know that marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) nest in the reedbeds there and it wouldn’t be totally unexpected to see a hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk) or a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk).

Avocet were nesting on the mudflats along with plenty of other birds including the black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge):

Black headed gull in full summer plumage guarding its nest

I was engrossed peering into the distance with my new spotting scope, and I found a spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, Dansk: skestork). The Danish name translates as ‘spoon stork‘ which just about sums it up really. I didn’t get a photograph because it was too far away, but it looks exactly like a white stork with a long beak shaped like a spoon. The conservation status of the spoonbill is amber and it is extremely rare in the UK and not terribly common on mainland Europe either. According to the British Trust for Ornithology there are 75 individuals in the UK and between 1998 and 2002 there were only 4 breeding pairs.

But I digress. As I was gazing into the disatnce the air raid warning was sounded: “There’s a peregrine… there are two!”

A peregrine falcon swooping down onto the nesting gulls

The falcons, I found out subsequently, were nesting on Sizewell B, the nuclear power station adjacent to the reserve. They arrived from that direction and when attacking they appeared to be working in tandem. The speed of their forays was absolutely breathtaking and caused total chaos on the ground:

The nesting gulls trying to distract the pair of peregrines

I tried to capture the falcons in the middle of their attack which was not easy, but I managed to catch one just above the left hand point of the mudflat behind. It wasn’t until I looked at the image at home that I realised the second falcon was in shot on the right too. So even though this photograph won’t win any awards I really like the drama going on here!

A common tern giving chase to deter the peregrine

The falcons raid lasted for several minutes and I didn’t see them catch any prey, thanks in no small part to the bravery of the common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne).

After the excitement of the falcons I ended up in a hide on the edge of the woods overlooking the reedbeds and sure enough the marsh harriers were much in evidence:

The female marsh harrier with her brown plumage and golden yellow crown

… and the male:

Whilst photographing the male marsh harrier a brown shape lifted out of the reeds and someone in the hide identified it as a bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum). It was too fast for me to identify it by myself as I was focussed on the harrier, but that means I heard one booming at Lakenheath in the morning and saw one at Minsmere in the afternoon. Not a bad day out.

Juvenile marsh harrier with ragged brown plumage and no yellow crown

I didn’t see a hobby but it would be churlish to dwell on that after the excitement of the peregrines, the family of marsh harriers, and the bittern and spoonbill neither of which I’d previously encountered.

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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.

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.