It's not often that I get to spend most of the day showing visitors some of the amazing wildlife at Minsmere, so I was pleased that today's weather was calm and dry. Ideal for seeing Minsmere at its best, even if the sun didn't come out.
My day started with taking out a lovely Belgian family on a Minsmere safari. Dad is a journalist, and will be writing some articles about Minsmere for the Belgian media, so we can look forward to welcoming a few more visitors from our neighbours in the Low Countries.
Our safaris are a great opportunity to discover some of the hidden parts of Minsmere from the relative comfort of a 4x4, with one of our brilliant volunteer guides as your driver. They can be booked at any time, subject to availability of a driver and vehicle, providing we get at least two weeks' notice. The cost is £90 for RSPB members or £155 for non members, which is per vehicle. Vehicles seat four passengers, so the cost is the same whether we take four of you out or just one person.
On a safari you will learn about the history and management of Minsmere, as well as spotting some wildlife. What you see will, of course, vary per season, as well as depending on the exact route chosen and whether or not the guide visits any of the hides.
We popped briefly into Wildlife Lookout for a better view of the Scrape, where we managed to see several species of duck as well as lapwings, snipe and black-tailed godwits. However, possibly the best sighting of the morning was a beautiful female kestrel that hovered, perfectly still, above the sluice, eyes clearly trained on something int he long grass below. As I explained that kestrels often follow the ultra-violet trails left behind by rodents' urine-soaked feet (a means of scent-marking), the kestrel folded its wings and dropped like a stone. As it didn't rise back up, I assume the hunt was successful. A perfect demonstration of predator catching prey.
Kestrel by Ian Barthorpe
After looking at the reedbed, dunes, ruined chapel and Scrape, we headed into the woods and heathland, off the beaten track. This part of the reserve always feels more "wild", as if on safari, especially as the driver must dodge rabbit burrows and fallen branches for a smoother ride. I showed them an area where silver-studded blue butterflies and meadow ants live in a symbiotic relationship - each dependent on the other for part of their lifecycle - and explained how we have reverted former arable land to Sandlings heath to benefit wildlife such as stone-curlews, woodlarks and invertebrates. With the red deer rut now over, these magnificent beasts have become harder to spot, but we did locate three hinds, as well as several curlews, a green woodpecker and some impressive late parasol fungi on the heath.
I just had time for a rushed lunch before meeting a group of RSPB supporters and donors for a short guided walk. As it was a large group, we split into three, with my group heading out down the North Wall and on to East Hide and back. Again, there was a bit of history (explaining how the old car park is now our fabulous pond-dipping pond and learning about the wartime defences), a discussion about the future impacts of climate and rising sea levels on Minsmere's habitats, some habitat management information and some wildlife spotting.
East Hide is a brilliant place to get to grips with ducks - large flocks of teals and smaller numbers of wigeons, shovelers, gadwalls, mallards and shelducks. Although wader numbers have declined, as is usual at Minsmere in winter, there were still 30+ black-tailed godwits, 12 avocets and several snipe and lapwings present, though the regular attentions of a hunting sparrowhawk were not welcome. We could hear some bearded tits close to the hide too.
For most of us, the best birds were left till last, as walking back along the North Wall we were treated to a gorgeous charm of 40+ goldfinches, accompanied by a handful of chaffinches. I checked carefully for a brambling without success, though one had been seen at the visitor centre again.
Goldfinch by John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Obviously we can't cover the whole reserve on a guided walk, and I didn't get a chance to visit Bittern hide and Island Mere today, which is a shame as there were some good sightings there too: otter, kingfishers, two great white egrets, four marsh harriers and an impressive 300 cormorants. Not a bad list for those lucky enough to see them.