Minsmere is a large RSPB reserve on the Suffolk coast, made famous when Springwatch was based there for three years. This is a site that I have visited before on several occasions and although it can be very busy, it is undoubtedly a superb place for nature and a great place for watching it; the varied habitats and large size of the reserve ensure that any visit is bound to be interesting. I had managed to book a Saturday off work for once, and I wasn’t going to waste it, so I set off early in the morning with my partner-in-birding, John, to see what Minsmere would surprise us with.
Leaving the visitor center, we crossed over a small pond where a Four-spotted Chaser was zipping around and occasionally settling on a reed stem, these are beautiful creatures when you get to see them up close. Just above the pond is an exposed sandy bank peppered with small holes, when I have visited before this was a thriving Sand Martin colony, but this year it was totally empty. A sign nearby explained that the martins had not left the area completely but had relocated their nesting site to recently exposed cliffs just up the coast, I am unsure why they would do this but I suppose they know what they are doing. We still saw hundreds of these delightful, compact hirundines swooping over much of the rest of the reserve, hunting for insects over the reeds or water.
The first hide doesn’t give the best view over the scrapes, but nonetheless we could see some of the islands which are host to large numbers of breeding gulls, ducks and terns. I was surprised at the number of Barnacle Geese present, many of which had bred and were accompanied by grey goslings – these are feral birds as truly wild ones are only seen in the winter. We did see the first Marsh Harrier of the day from this hide, gliding along the edge of the reedbed and being harassed by gulls. There were quite a few blue damselflies hovering around in front of the hide, but they are so small and thin that it is impossible to identify what species they are at any distance. One individual was thoughtful enough to come and perch on the sill of the window I was sitting at, just inches from my face, so I was able to recognise it as a Blue-tailed Damselfly.
We did stop at the Stone Curlew viewpoint for a scan over the open, sandy field where they are apparently present, but without the slightest surprise we failed to see either a curlew or a stone. However a Whitethroat was singing from a nearby bush and several Linnet were feeding close by on the ground – one of them was clearly a fledgling too. The trail then cuts across an area of reedbed just behind the beach, Swifts and Swallows were hawking overhead, several Reed Buntings (quite common here) were flitting about and then I heard a distinct ‘ping’ call followed by a small light-brown bird with a long tail that zoomed low over the reeds before diving back in. It was a Bearded Reedling! First of the day, although John missed it alas.
The trail then follows the beach down along the side of the main scrape, the hide here gives excellent views over the lagoons and this is by far the busiest part of the reserve. The air is alive with birds leaving, or returning from feeding expeditions, Sand Martins are a constant presence overhead, Black-Headed Gulls are very numerous and very noisy, every island is swarming with ducks, geese, gulls, waders or terns and the sheer busyness of it all is quite thrilling. Here we had good views of the Avocets that breed here and we had little trouble spotting the many Mediterranean Gulls that nest among their commoner cousins – their bold black heads, blood-red bill and white wing tips make them really stand out in a crowd, gorgeous birds. Common Terns were also in good numbers and their graceful, streamlined forms that seem to just slip through the air are quite obvious in flight among the heavier, less elegant gulls.
We had uncommonly good views of a singing Sedge Warbler that had helpfully set up territory right by the path to the hide, it belted out its hurried, messy song from a small shrub in full view. The next stop was at a viewpoint, from here we could see more scrapes and were slightly surprised to see a large group of Kittiwakes resting on one of the shingle islands. These are marine gulls which nest on coastal cliffs and although I was aware that a colony nested nearby, I had not expected to see any actually on the ground in the reserve. They are very pretty and finely marked gulls, much nicer to look at than their bulky cousins.
On the same island there were also several Mediterranean gulls and better still, two Sandwich Terns that were quite asleep, John and I then managed to spot two separate Ringed Plovers at exactly the same time. The trail then turns back inland and cuts through the center of the reserve, either side of this trail are reedbeds and shrubs line the path which are excellent for the resident Cetti’s Warblers. Although we initially struggled to actually see any of these elusive little birds (despite them singing all around us) we eventually were treated to the closest sighting I have ever had of one of these birds when one decided to explode into song on a branch immediately next to the path where we were standing, it was so close I could even see its yellow throat as it sung.
Talking of close views, we also had a run-in with some more Bearded Reedlings; John had the best view when one shot out of the reeds right in front of him and flew right over our heads, across the path and back into the reeds, going ‘ping’ all the time. After a bit of a walk we reached Bittern Hide, which overlooks the largest and best area of reedbed in the whole reserve. Despite not seeing any Bitterns, we were treated to grand views of multiple Marsh Harriers and in a pool just below the hide I managed to spot a local speciality, the Norfolk Hawker, an attractive dragonfly with bright green eyes and a mango-coloured body.
Perhaps the best bird of the entire day though was the Hobby. At least two (maybe more) of these small falcons were hunting over the reeds in front of the hide and the surrounding area, they swooped and dived and twisted and soared on their razor-wings, catching and eating dragonflies in the air. These are truly stunning birds, with boldly streaked bellies, fluffy red thighs, navy-blue backs and side-burns that would make Elvis proud. At the end of the day we ate chocolate tiffin and had a cup of tea in the sun outside the visitor center, with a total of 59 species it had been a fairly successful day, with some quality birds and all in a beautiful rural setting, worth the long drive I think.