Tuesday, 2 June 2015

RSPB Minsmere - pre BBC Springwatch check

The Beeb asked me to visit Minsmere ahead of this years Springwatch - just to check everything was OK you understand, a kind of mystery shopper.

If anyone doesn't know where it is - Chris Packham explains every night on BBC Springwatch.

I kept looking at the weather forecast ( for the end of Spring!) and it changed everyday so I just went for it.  Found a B&B in Middleton, The Old Post Office, about 3 miles from Minsmere and less than 100 yards from the The Bell pub and Adnams Ales!  - what's not to like? - decent food too, though the landlord is a bit strange, kept calling me "my dear boy" - I'm 61 and don't like being patronised but I was hungry & thirsty so I put up with it, I guess it's just his way.

Anyway, two & a half hours after leaving home I arrived at Minsmere.  Overcast and windy - the weather not me! - I was quite excited, this was my first visit and I needed the loo.  So first part of my nature trip was to answer it's call, better.  Sign in, get my sticker & map, head to the cafe, coffee and a hot Suffolk sausage bap - a wholemeal one of course, have to eat healthily after all. 

Twenty minutes later I'm back at the car changing my footwear and grabbing the bins and camera, and I'm off.

Bittern Hide first stop I decided - obvious place to start as I wanted to see Marsh Harriers and there isn't a "Marsh Harrier Hide".  Not disappointed I saw Marsh Harriers alright but could've done with a stronger pair of bins, I think they were signing on for the afternoon shift at Sizewell B, just a couple of miles away!  They did venture closer but not much, and the weather was closing in.  I took a chance and moved on to the Island Mere Hide (past the point where Spineless Si was nest building and I didn't even see the Stickleback which was to become the star of Springwatch Week 1), in fact I didn't see much at all apart from the Bittern which flew by the hide so close I could've touched it - couldn't photograph it mind you, but could've touched it.  Black skies, strong winds, heavy rain, I'll sit here a while then.

After 20 minutes or so the sun came out, I changed into my bikini and headed for the beach, nobody took any notice!  Checking the TV cabling as I go.  Stumbled across an adder also dressed to take the best of the sun. 

Along the North Walls the Bearded Tits were playing hard to get, one lady did tell me that she'd seen her favourite Reed Warblers but her Tits were staying where they were, probably because of the wind, at least I think that's what she said I couldn't hear her clearly probably because of the wind too!

I did catch a few glimpses of the Beardies as they flew across the path but it was just too windy for reed climbing today, did find this one Female who ventured out briefly.

I walked on, wanted to have a look at the Scrape area and check out the cabling.

A few spots of rain as I reached the East Hide.  I'd heard rumours in the cafe of a Red-necked Phalarope being seen, I looked, I couldn't see it but a local chap with a scope found it and I did manage to see a silhouette of it the other side of the scrape with a group of Black-tailed Godwits.  It was so small and so silhouetted that I don't count it as a "tick" on my list (or if I had a list I wouldn't count it!) but I can at least say "I was there".

More wind & rain, then bright sunshine, thunder & lightning, more rain, then sun again.  While the sun was out I headed out again, aiming for the other side of the scrape where the sun would be behind me - assuming it was still out by then of course.
I paused along the way to watch the Swifts flying over the Scrape and the adjacent reed beds - loads of them - accompanied by Common Terns, Avocets and Lapwings.  Black skies overhead, looks like rain, where's the nearest hide?  I stopped by a Hawthorn to take a couple of pics of the Terns and was almost deafened by a Cetti's Warbler which must have been virtually on my shoulder it was so loud - certainly made me jump!

Just made it to the West Hide as the rain came down - heavy, more thunder & lightning, more wind, it was breezy outside too!  At least the wind blew the rain through quickly and the sun came out again in a cloudless sky behind me and a rainbow in front, don't you just love our Spring weather!  Decent light for a few evening photos of the Godwits & Avocets

After another shower, I decided to call it a day, it was approaching 7.00pm and I'd managed to stay dry so didn't want to push my luck.

Found the B&B, unpacked, put the camera battery on charge & headed to The Bell.

End of Day 1.

Day 2 started with breakfast - cereal, full English, toast & homemade marmalade!

Arrived on site just before 9.00.  Headed off to the Bittern Hide again, hopeful of Harriers, Hobbies and/or Bitterns (which I could hear "booming"). 

On arrival, nothing to be seen, absolutely nothing, but in the next hour or so, Hobby flying by & perching in a nearby "tree",

Harriers causing havoc over the reedbeds as they searched for food (though still fairly distant),

 Bitterns booming regularly and occasionally flying across the reedbeds, but generally too distant.

When I returned here later in the day I was rewarded with a Harrier a little closer

 and a Bittern flying in and walking around in front of the hide.

Between visits to the Bittern Hide, I was intent on getting some pictures of Bearded Tits in the reedbeds along the North Walls, so, after coffee & cake, I trundled off towards the "North" Hide & Walls areas bounding the Scrape.  Nothing in the North Hide, and no sign of the Stone Curlews on the North fields, so onto North Walls.  Plenty of people about and some bird activity, the wind had dropped noticeably from yesterday but was still strong enough, especially in gusts, to keep the Beardies down in the reeds. 
A couple of Reed Warblers obliged and showed the Beardies how to do it.

With several others I watched the reedbeds on both sides of the path, noting roughly where the Beardies were appearing and giving the best, albeit brief, views. 
I settled down in one particular area where I'd noted the Beardies being quite active.  Sat here for an hour or so and did manage a few decent views.
Then  a  hailstorm ensued - only 5 minutes or so - and cleared the area of birds and birders,  at least my jacket was waterproof but unfortunately the same could not be said of my jeans!  Note to self - get a pair of waterproof trousers once the jeans have dried.
Dampened but not downhearted, I headed back to the B&B and The Bell (tonight I had a table booked for 8.00pm).
Day 3 - Dunwich Heath
Following on from a large evening meal I started the day with a large breakfast, just managed to cram it all in, I probably won't need to eat again until elevenses!
Today my plan was to visit Dunwich Heath which is adjacent to Minsmere, to see if I could spot the Dartford Warblers there.  I parked up at Minsmere having decided to walk to the heath along the beach and maybe walk off a bit of my breakfast.  (Absolutely nothing to do with the £4.80 parking fee at Dunwich against the free parking at Minsmere - as an RSPB Member!)
So, a 15-20 minute along the beach which took about half an hour as I viewed the sea, and the other side of the Minsmere reedbed.  Marsh Harriers were here yesterday but none today.  I arrived at the Heath Tea Shop just in time to get a tea and a healthy Oat & Apricot Flapjack and a chat to one of the volunteers about the best areas to (hopefully) see the Dartfords. 
The Tea Shop / Visitor Centre is the old Coast Guard Cottages, very picturesque, and here's a picture, taken from the North Walls, Minsmere, to prove it.
 If you haven't been, go to the right of the Barn and take either the trail to the right or go straight ahead.  It turns out that this is a circular trail of about 1.5 miles, and, in the sunshine, very enjoyable.  Today the weather is promised to be warm and sunny (mainly) but still a bit breezy, so T-shirt & lightweight top, plus light fleece tied (fashionably - for the 1970's!) around my expanding waistline, just in case.
I bumped into a lady coming off the heath (not the same lady I met on day 1 I'm pleased to say!) who put me on the right path.  It seems that the Dartfords were about and were visible in several areas, mainly those where there were seats in place.  I did wonder if she had just noticed them as she rested on her walk round the heath.  Anyway, I walked slowly along the trail seeing nothing at all.  Eventually a distant Stonechat - which I'm lead to believe is a good sign as the Dartfords are often sen in the same area as the Stonechats - er, not this time!
I continued my walk around the trail and found the last of three seats where my informant had said there were Dartfords feeding.  I sat and waited, and waited, and waited.  After 40 minutes or so I noticed a small dark bird flying towards me from the heather.  It landed in the gorse bush alongside the seat, I could see immediately it was a Dartford.  It sat for about 20 nanoseconds and then disappeared into the gorse, popping out in a different place every 30 seconds or so before flying low across the heather and back to the nest I assume.  This went on for about half an hour, and not once did it give me a chance to get a photo, although a rather "chunky" Chaffinch did stop for a while. 
Then a NT Quad Bike went by and that was the end of that.
I carried on along the trail, past the area being repaired by the NT Volunteers, and down towards the woods, without any further sightings.
I had decided to head back to the tea shop, it being well after 1.00pm now and was heading along the final bit of the circular trail when I noticed some movement low down in the heather, bins up quick check and - Stonechat, blast.  Stood watching it for a few minutes before it flew into deep scrub, and flew straight out again only this time there were two of them and they weren't Stonechats, they were Dartfords, at last a decent view even if they were a fair way off.  I took a couple of long shots - shouldn't have bothered, and then just watched as they disappeared into the heather.
I carried on towards lunch, stopping to chat to a couple coming in the other direction.  As we passed the time of day we spotted the Dartfords again, a bit closer this time and heading our way.  We edged into a couple of trees for cover and saw the birds come closer still. 
That was as close as they came, I got a couple of shots and determined to come back again sometime soon to try to improve on these.


So my visit to Dunwich Heath was relatively successful and completely enjoyable, it is so quiet and you feel so remote even though you are no distance from "civilisation" in reality.  This is one place that really gives you the chance to get back to nature and to sit and watch and listen to nature and completely relax.  And there's tea & cake nearby!
Now back home via North Walls at Minsmere, and you can't resist the pull of the Beardies if they are about and here's the proof.


 Thank you RSPB Minsmere, an amazing place with a huge variety of wildlife all very accessible, and the cakes not bad either!
My feedback to the BBC Head of Better was that "Minsmere is a great choice for Springwatch, there is no better place."  I understand she reported that in a meeting in Frankie Howerd on the Saturday before Springwatch started, which was a completely different Saturday to the previous one or the one since!  Cool!
Quote "I'll be back"

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