As I wandered around the Scrape at lunchtime I pondered on which of our 70 species to spot I was going to feature for today's blog. My first thought was to feature the wigeon, whose whistling calls I could hear across the Scrape. But no, they'll be better later in the year, when winter has really set in. Next I considered the konik Polski, as these beautiful ponies are easily seen from North Hide at the moment. Again, they can feature later in the year.
When four gorgeous bullfinches flitted over my head in the Sluice Bushes, I thought that perhaps I should feature them, but since they are easiest to see in late winter I'll come back to them. It was a close call, though, especially when another stunning male posed in the North Bushes - almost sitting there long enough for me to snap a picture.
Eventually, though, my decision was made. As I walked along the dunes, a small flock of stonechats fed among the gorse between Public Viewpoint and South Hide. I counted seven in this short stretch, included adult males, young males and females. Last week I counted nine a little farther north along the dunes, between North Wall and the National Trust. There have also been sightings of stonechats at the landward end of the North Wall and in the reedbed around South Hide and North Marsh this week, so it certainly seems to be right time to feature these small songbirds.
Male stonechat by Jon Evans
Stonechats are resident birds at Minsmere, with several pairs breeding on the heath and a few pairs on the dunes. In autumn and winter, some of our birds may move elsewhere, but others certainly visit us, probably from northern Europe. They are particularly easy to see at the moment, and it's quite likely that some of these birds are migrants.
Stonechats are small, robin-sized birds. They have a very characteristic "jizz" (a birdwatcher's word, derived from Second World War fighter pilot terminology, meaning "general impression of size and shape"). With experience, it's often possible to spot stonechats at quite a distance simply on this "jizz". They typically perch upright on the top of gorse or bramble bushes in scrubby areas, then drop to the ground in pursuit of a tasty grasshopper, cricket or beetle, only to return to the same or nearby perch. While other closely related species, such as whinchat or wheatear, may feed in a similar way, they always have a slightly different "jizz".
Female stonechat in typical pose by Jon Evans
As their name suggests, they are members of the chat family, which also includes both robins and nightingales. The stone part of their name comes from their call, which sounds like two stones being tapped together. They are widespread species in scrubby areas such as heaths, dunes and chalk grassland, but generally absent i woodland.
Alongside the stonechats in the dunes, keep your eyes peeled for a Dartford warbler which has been reported there on several dates recently. This is presumably one of the birds from Dunwich Heath, as one or two often spend part of the winter in the dunes, but it can be elusive and eluded my eyes today. Other birds to look out for in the dunes include meadow pipits, linnets and goldfinches.
In other scrubby areas, you should spot goldcrests, long-tailed tits, marsh tits and green woodpeckers. A few visitors were lucky enough to see a rare visitor from Siberia on Saturday evening when a Radde's warbler was found in the Sluice Bushes. This was the first reserve record for 50 years, but sadly didn't stay until Sunday.
Out on the Scrape, there is definitely more of feel of winter than autumn now, with large flocks of ducks but fewer and fewer waders. Among the latter, one late little stint and five avocets are the highlights, but there are also still a few dunlins, one or two curlews, several snipe and redshanks and at least 50 black-tailed godwits. A knot was seen on East Scrape today, and I spotted a golden plover over the reedbed on Saturday morning. A peregrine has also been seen sitting on the Scrape a couple of times this week.
Talking of birds of prey, it's nice to see a couple of hobbies still hanging around, while sparrowhawks, kestrels and marsh harriers are all regular. One lucky visitor had a short-eared owl land almost at his feet int he dunes a couple of days ago!
Short-eared owl by Chris Prynne
Bitterns, bearded tits, kingfishers, otters and water rails area ll seen daily in the reedbed, while greylag geese, little grebes, mute swans and cormorants will keep you occupied waiting for the more elusive reedbed residents to put in an appearance. A few swallows and sand martins are still flying around too.