It's National Insect Week, so it seems only right that this week I turn my attention to one of Minsmere's very special insects. Antlions had only been seen a handful of times in the UK before 1996, when they were discovered nesting alongside the Minsmere visitor centre. They have subsequently spread to other parts of the Suffolk coast, but Minsmere still remans the best place to look for them.
Antlions look like a cross between a lacewing and a dragonfly. Only one species occurs in the UK, but there are several other species around the world. Finding an adult antlion during your visit is very unlikely as they are nocturnal, so most likely to be seen in a moth trap. We do very occasionally find one resting on vegetation during the day, too.
Adult antlion by Pete Etheridge
Luckily, it is easy to find evidence of antlions, enabling you to tick them off your 70 species to spot at Minsmere list, because their larva dig distinctive conical pits in soft sand. These pits are best found on south-facing patches of bare sand, especially under an overhang. The easiest ones to see are immediately behind Minsmere's reception building, but there is a newly discovered colony under Bittern Hide. We even have them nesting in a narrow sandy strip alongside the wardens; office.
An antlion larval pit
The larvae themselves are rarely seen either as they remain hidden beneath the sand, waiting expectantly for an unsuspecting ant to tumble into the pit. When that happens, the trap has been sprung, and the ant's chances of survival are slim. The larva now starts phase two of the hunt, flicking grains of sand at the struggling ant to knock it back into the base of the pit - right into the fearsome pincers of the waiting predator.
An antlion larva with fearsome pincers
The antlions aren't the only insects to look for under your feet either, as the action is really beginning to kick off in Digger Alley. Last week I reported that the sand wasps were active, then over the weekend we found the first green-eyed flower-bees, ornate-tailed wasps and dune chafers of the summer. Ruby-tailed wasps have already been seen too. We're hoping that pantaloon bees and bee wolfs might put in an appearance in time for Suffolk Day on Thursday - especially as the latter are subject of one of the questions in our Minsmere Treasure Trail.
The aerial insects are visible too, with good numbers and variety of dragonflies and damselflies, including the first common darter of the yesterday. Other insects to look out for this week include butterflies, day-flying moths such as cream-spot tiger, cinnabar or silver Y, grasshoppers and crickets and beetles. The latter could include the impressive lesser stag beetle - one flew into the visitor centre window yesterday - as well as the tiny pollen beetles that are attracted in large numbers to yellow and white clothing.
Bigger beasties to look out for include the usual mammalian suspects - red deer, muntjac, rabbit, grey squirrel, water vole, otter and stoat - while a red fox was spotted resting on the field behind the visitor centre on Saturday morning.
Bitterns continue to show well around the reedbed, with several females still feeding young. Marsh harriers, too, are busy feeding chicks, which should be due to start fledging soon, while at least five hobbies can be seen hawking over the reeds. Bearded tits have been a little more visible this week, and reed warblers, sedge warblers and reed buntings continue to sing.
The record breeding season continues for Mediterranean gulls - 46 nesting pairs have been counted this spring - and the black-headed gull chicks are on the verge of fledging. Avocets, common and Sandwich terns and shelducks are still nesting on the Scrape. Several spotted redshanks can be seen on the Scrpae most days - these are south bound migrants returning from the Arctic already, and up to 300 black-tailed godwits are non-breeding Icelandic birds. Other waders include a few dunlins, ringed plovers and curlews, with both greenshank and wood sandpiper reported over the weekend.
Another bird breeding in almost record numbers is sand martin, with an impressive 347 burrows occupied this year - just 19 short of the record season from more than 20 years ago! It's no wonder that so many visitors have been commenting on the sand martins this year - especially given the widely publicised late (or non-) return from Africa of house martins, swallows and swifts in many areas. (Hint: I've just answered question 1 from the Suffolk Day treasure trail, too.)
Sand martin by Russ Sheriff
It was a perfect day for a stroll along the beach today. And I do mean a stroll, as the chill breeze made it slightly less suitable for sunbathing unless you could find a sheltered sunny spot. That wasn't a problem for me, as I was enjoying the walk anyway, and I was particularly interested in looking at the fabulous shingle flora.
Many visitors have commented this year about how impressive the sea kale has been on beach, especially in the area immediately north of sluice. It's coming to the end of the flowering season now, but there is certainly a lot of this large cabbage, with large clumps scattered along the whole length of the beach.
Among the kale is an equally impressive display of yellow-horned poppy. Like the kale, it has thick waxy, blue-grey leaves to reduce the loss of water through evapo-transpiration in the harsh coastal environment in which it grows. The two plants together certainly make for a fantastic sight, especially on beautiful sunny day like today.
If you look beneath the taller plants, there's a host of other shingle flora to spot. There's only one large clump of sea holly, which isn't quite in flower yet, but there are the pink flowers of restharrow, yellows of birds-foot trefoil, biting stonecrop and sticky groundsel, pink-and-white sea bindweed, white stars of English stonecrop and blue, thistle-like flowers of sheep's-bit, plus carpets of sea milkwort.
If you'd like to learn more about our shingle flowers, why not book on Steve's coastal flowers of Minsmere guided walk on Sunday. See here for details.
All the time that you're looking at the flora you'll also spot a variety of insects, such as common blue and small heath butterflies, various bees and crickets, and even a few dragonflies, especially black-tailed skimmers. There's also common terns and kittiwakes flying overhead between the Scrape and the sea. Don't forget to check the sea too. A huge flock of 600 common scoters were offshore today, along with a single male velvet scoter. I saw a large bull grey seal close to shore, and our volunteer guides spotted two harbour porpoises offshore too.
The beach isn't the only sandy area attracting interesting wildlife. Digger Alley is just starting to wake up. For those less familiar with the reserve, this a stretch of path through the North Bushes where several species of bees and wasps burrow beneath your feet into the loose sandy soil. The first pantaloon bees have been reported, and the first beewolves should emerge soon, but the early stars here are the sand wasps - large parasitic wasps that feed on green caterpillars. I enjoyed watching this one excavate its burrow today - I'll post a video on Facebook and Twitter later.
There were many other interesting sightings today. Highlights included a black adder crossing the path outside the visitor centre; a honey-buzzard and three common buzzards over the car park; bittern and marsh harrier sightings throughout the reserve; avocets, black-headed and Mediterranean gulls (pictured below), common and Sandwich terns, two spotted redshanks and black-tailed godwits on the Scrape; a greenshank on the Konik Field; and a good variety of butterflies and dragonflies.
We're looking forward to showing our visitors all of these species and many more during our Suffolk Day celebrations next week. Don't forget that non members living in Suffolk will get free entry for the day (Thursday 21 June), we'll be launching our Minsmere Treasure Trail (no prizes, just pride) and our volunteer guides will be leading some Suffolk Day guided walks. We hope to see you there.
There's been lots of comments among birdwatchers this year about reduced numbers of certain species. Swifts, house martins and some of our other summer migrants seem to have arrived late, or not at all in some areas. The reasons are complex, but may be related to poor weather on migration. They do, however, follow on from years of declining populations for many species, as highlighted in the State of Nature report.
Cetti's warblers have almost disappeared from Minsmere due to the Beast from the East, which appears to have also lead to declines in numbers of booming bitterns, bearded tits and woodlarks, though not so severely. Given a good breeding season, these species should hopefully bounce back quickly. Indeed, although monitoring is ongoing, it looks like it could be a good year for nesting bitterns, with several females flying around the reedbed to bring food back to their chicks, so there may be some good news there.
The absence of Cetti's warblers has left the reedbeds strangely quiet this spring. Added to this, there appears to be fewer sedge warblers singing, though reed warblers remain in full voice as they continue to rear broods of hungry chicks. No doubt some of their nests won't contain reed warbler chicks, though, but will instead be filled by a single huge cuckoo chick - especially as cuckoos have bucked the trends and seem to be much more obvious this year - one was singing for most of yesterday afternoon near the sluice.
Another reedbed bird that seems to be more obvious this year is this week's species that i have chosen for you look out for from the 70 species to spot at Minsmere list: the reed bunting. Male reed buntings are very distinctive in spring and summer, with jet black head and throat offset by a white moustachial stripe and white hind collar. The rest of body is rather sparrow-like, with brown and black streaked upperparts and faint black streaks on the grey underparts. However, when they fly, the white outer tail feathers are also distinctive.
Male reed bunting by Jon Evans
As with many songbirds, the females are plainer, and much more sparrow-like, but still have white outer tail feathers (not present in house sparrows). They also have a creamy moustacial stripe and supercilium (eyebrow). Winter plumage males are similar to the females, but with darker heads.
Female reed bunting by Paul Sawer
Reed buntings can be quite easy to find at this time of year, but it helps to learn their relatively indistinct, simple song - more a series of simple notes repeated slowly, rather than jumble of notes associated with sedge or reed warblers. If you hear this song, scan the tops of the reedbed or nearby bushes as the males usually sit prominently when singing. I saw at least three around the Coast Trail yesterday, simply by hearing their song.
There was lots more to see on the Coast Trail yesterday, even without visiting the hides: a gorgeous male stonechat sang from gorse bushes near the sluice; a cuckoo sand incessantly near Lucky Pool (but refused to show itself); a greenshank was on the Konik Field; sand wasps signalled the start of activity along Digger Alley; and hundreds of four-spotted chasers and dozens of Norfolk hawkers dominated an impressive showing of dragons and damsels that also included broad-bodied chaser, black-tailed skimmer, emperor and hairy dragonflies, blue-tailed, common blue and azure damselflies.
Of course, visits to the hides are a must too, with loads to see on the Scrape. It was great to see several chicks with the Mediterranean gulls nesting on East Scrape, while many of the black-headed gull chicks are close to fledging. Kittiwakes continue to gather nesting material on the Scrape, and a beautiful second year little gull commuted between the Scrape, Konik Field and Lucky Pool. The Sandwich terns nesting on East Scrape also have chicks, while a little tern continues to visit South Scrape on a regular basis.
Kittiwakes resting on a rail on East Scrape
Avocets are still nesting, and the black-tailed godwit flock has reached 350 birds. The first southbound spotted redshanks and curlews have been seen on the Scrape this week - a week or so earlier than usual - signalling a very early start to "autumn" wader migration. Conversely, other waders are still passing north on migration, with a stunning summer-plumage grey plover on South Scrape, several knots and a few dunlins and turnstones this week, as week as a few tundrae race ringed plovers. Our resident ringed plovers are nesting on the beach south of the sluice.
Finally, a couple of more unusual sightings over the weekend included a black kite over the car park on Saturday and a glossy ibis at Island Mere on Sunday.