Firstly, apologies for my tardiness in writing this week's species of the week blog. I know that you are used to these appearing on a Monday, and it's Friday today, so I haven't given you much chance to see this week's star species, but don't worry as I've chosen one that will become increasingly obvious as March turns into April.
In fact, this week's star species has actually only just arrived on the reserve, as the first chiffchaffs of spring were heard around the Rhododendron Tunnel this morning. Of all our summer songbirds, this is perhaps the easiest song to learn, along with the equally onomatopoeic cuckoo - the first of which will still be several weeks away. The disyllabic "chiff-chaff chiff-chaff" song will become a familiar sound throughout the spring, and is always a precursor to the arrival of other spring migrants. What's more, March is a good time to see them singing, often in willow or birch trees, before the leaves unfurl and the birds themselves disappear into the canopy. Look for a tiny olive-green warbler with short pale supercilium (eyebrow), short wings, and dark legs. When the very similarly plumaged willow warblers arrive they have longer wings, paler legs, a more obvious supercilium, and, of course, a very different song.
Chiffchaff by John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Although chiffchaffs are always thought of as one of the first spring migrants migrants to arrive, they were beaten to that honour this year by a solitary sand martin that was seen hawking for early insects over Island Mere on Wednesday, and again yesterday. This was part of a mini invasion of sand martins into the UK this week, along with several wheatears, the odd swallow, and even a few ospreys - though we're waiting for all of those to arrive at Minsmere.
There was no sign of the sand martin today, but two other typically early spring migrants have arrived: a female black redstart was feeding along the northern edge of the car park this afternoon (with a male near the sluice, and three at nearby Dunwich Heath National Trust reserve), and a gorgeous drake garganey was seen briefly on East Scrape, before flying towards the Scrape.
Today's female black redstart by Ian Barthorpe (note the sooty-brown plumage and orange-red tail that gives it's name)
Of course, while the aforementioned species are generally referred to as spring migrants, for us the first signs of spring are always noted in mid February when the first oystercatchers and ringed plovers return tot he Scrape, followed by returning avocets, black-headed and Mediterranean gulls. Numbers are continuing to increase, and they've been joined by a male ruff, with two grey plovers and the first bar-tailed godwit of the year passing thorough this week too.
Bitterns have been booming for a couple of weeks now, but I finally heard one for the first time this year on my lunchtime walk to Island Mere today. It was a joy to sit in the hide listening to a skylark singing high above the reeds, with bitterns booming, bearded tits pinging and a water rail squealing as marsh harriers called and sky-danced overhead. They weren't the only birds displaying wither, as I watched a buzzard spiraling high into the sky only to plummet towards the ground, before banking up and cruising down into a nearby field to search for earthworms.
Adders are continuing to be reported most days, and butterflies are beginning to emerge from hibernation, with sightings of both peacock and brimstone around the Adder Trail - Rhododendron Tunnel area today. I saw my first bumblebee of the year in the car park today too. Quite what they'll make of the expected drop in temperature this weekend I'm not sure, but once temperatures rise again next week all of these species are sure to become easier to find.
Peacock butterfly by Ian Barthorpe
The forecast mini cold snap should ensure that the family of five whooper swans and the two redhead smew remain for at least a few more days. Another long-stayer is the glossy ibis which is still feeding on the flooded fields at Eastbridge. We still had 40 000 starlings roosting at dusk on Wednesday night, so they too should stay for a little longer yet. they are best seen from the North Wall from 5.30 pm onwards.
Finally, if you are visiting this weekend, please bring wellies or good walking boots. The path from South Belt Crossroads to the Wildlife Lookout and South Hide is wet in places, but passable, as is the entrance to Island Mere. From South Hide to the Sluice, the path is only accessible with wellies, although water levels have begun to drop.
Chiffchaffs may be easy to identify by song, but if you want help with learning birdsong this spring then why not join our volunteers on their Sounds of Spring guided walks during April and May - http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/events-dates-and-inspiration/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-452134. We even include a light breakfast. For details of other guided walks and family events this spring, and how to book, please see http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/find-a-reserve/reserves-a-z/events.aspx?reserve=Minsmere
It certainly feels like Spring is finally on its way at Minsmere this week. Patches of ice left over from the infamous ‘beast from the east’ are slowly thawing, giving way to flowering daffodils scattered on the grass around the visitor centre. An assortment of waders such as avocet, black-tailed godwit and oyster catcher have been showing well this week on the scrape too, to add to the large numbers of wonderful wildfowl.
Having said that, I’ve been pretty fond of winter this year and have had many magical wildlife moments so far in 2018. Highlights include discovering large numbers of redwing hopping around in the woodland leaf litter, and watching flocks of long-tailed tits squeakily chattering away in the canopy.
Long-tailed tit by John Bridges
I’ve also never seen as many Goldcrest as I have yet this year, flitting quietly among the branches, and I can now confidently tell a greenfinch from a siskin as they pull out some amazing acrobatic moves to get to those alder seeds in the tree tops. Not to mention the obvious highlight… did someone say something about a murmuration?
The visitor team has been working hard over the last few months to inspire families and youth groups, with a whole calendar of hands-on activities to help them give nature a home through the chilly season.
In January our Big Bird Cake Off returned in aid of the Big Garden Birdwatch, and armed families with the most delicious seed based treats our garden birds could ever dream of. We made nearly 50 feeders over the course of the weekend, and even had a visit by BBC Radio Suffolk. What’s more, our volunteers left with remarkably soft hands after a bespoke (and highly recommended) lard treatment!
Beatrice and Barnaby showcasing their homemade bird cakes
Meanwhile, our Reedlings group have been busy exploring the wonder of mud, hugging trees making birds’ nests and discovering the 101 things you can do with a stick (I’m sure there’s more than that…). These monthly sessions for under 5’s have been so popular we have been fully booked throughout the Winter months!
National Nextbox Week arrived in February, and we celebrated as usual by grabbing the nearest hammer and seeing what we could rustle up over half-term week. Turns out that with a little help from our superstar volunteer Stan and the rest of the wonderful events team, by the end of the week 161 nest boxes were built by visiting families and taken away with them. This means that we’ve now helped to create safe, comfy places for birds such as robins, blue tits and great tits to raise their brood this coming spring.
Lily hammering her blue/great tit nest box together
The beginning of March now marks the start of a very busy season welcoming even more families and hordes of excitable school children to release their inner wildthing and enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer. There’s lots to look forward to in the next few months, with the pond dipping and bird ringing season on the horizon, followed by our Big Wild Sleepout.
Big Wild Sleepout by Rahul Thanki
And of course, there are always plenty of ideas of how to stay wild and get close to nature all year round on our Wild Challenge pages. Why not have a look at our website to find out more?
Guest blog by Colin Moyse, Volunteer Guide
Just thought I would tell you about my day on Tuesday.
I was in Bittern Hide, with a few members of the public present, when one lady said that she had never seen an otter in the wild before. Low and behold, within five minutes I managed to spot a dog otter for her! Much to everyone’s delight, it continued to give close views for five minuets or so.
Otter by Ian Barthorpe
Later in the day I managed to ‘pat’ the very tame muntjac that has taken up residence outside the visitor centre! in view of what happened to one in Norfolk over the weekend (when it savaged by a dog), this was a special moment - though we don't recommend trying to stroke the muntjac as it is a wild animal, and may bite.
Muntjac by Christine Hall
I ended the day by going to see the starling murmuration. Wow! Amazing! Spectacular! Words fail me for the spectacle that was about to unfold. This was my fourth visit to the North Wall since Christmas. It was the biggest number I have seen so far, and they gave twenty or so people present a show to remember. The noise, and downdraft as they constantly circled above our heads, was just indescribable. They were so close that you could almost reach out and touch them, constantly giving amazing ‘shapes’ before they eventually settled in the reeds just in front of us.
Starlings fill the sky by Ian Barthorpe
One of nature's special moments ended a super day at Minsmere.
Starling murmuration by Ian Barthorpe