Ah, Minsmere! The Suffolk coastal birder’s spiritual home! I still can’t remember if this or Cley was the first reserve I was thrown off. These days you’re more likely to be greeted by an affable character in an RSPB fleece with a membership pack in his/her hand than an angry bloke on a tractor, but that’s the changing face of conservation for you…..and it was an awfully long time ago…

And so, some **years later, I joined the other 12 WBC members in the reserve car park, in bright light and a brisk SW wind, with just a hint of chill on it. And, as usually happens, the bird list started moving up like a pinball machine immediately. If you ever do a shift as a bird lister, try and get a late one. Getting up to around 50-60 in May at Minsmere is a work of clerical hysteria; moving from 60-90 a more sedate affair altogether.

The Away Team....
The Away Team….

We compiled the birds seen by the various members on the way in, including nightingale, turtle dove, barn owl and red-legged partridge, before moving under the cloud of sand martins onto the reserve itself.

The north bushes kept the tally rising with the usual woodland edge varieties, including singers that have now become part of the soundscape like blackcap and chiffchaff.

Steve and Andrew were leading, and – through sheer persistence and raptor-like vision – pulled out a single stone curlew from the field between the north wall and visitors’ centre, before we headed down the sonic pathway between reed and sedge warblers, reed bunting, beardies and Cetti’s warblers, with bitterns booming from undetectable sites in the reeds.

The sea was fairly quiet as it can be at this time of year, so we didn’t waste much time watching it, and headed along the front towards East Hide. A Cetti’s was hollering his warning about Col Gadaafi (that’s how I hear it, anyway!) right by the gate, and as Andrew and I went through, up he jumped to a top bramble.  He stared at us, and we stared at him – you can’t really move a muscle at these times, or call out to anyone else, but a rare eye-to-eye close up with one of the great elusives.  And then he was gone, and we could breathe again.

WBC take the East Hide

Pity the poor solo birder, thinking he’d have a quiet early morning down at Minsmere – perhaps a slow contemplation of the sluice from the hide. Now he’s got 13 WBC members for company. Still, he should look on the bright side, as the assembled company ‘called the birds.’  A common sandpiper decided it was all too much, and left the scene fairly early, while kittiwakes collected nest material before heading off with a muddy beakful to the nest site on the rigs off Sizewell.

Debating the composition of string.....
Debating the composition of string…..
Do you have a hobby?
Do you have a hobby?

Waders were fairly thin on the ground, but we caught dunlin in their summer suits, ringed plover, turnstone, blackwits and a solitary greenshank, with a couple of bitterns flying high topping the rarity list.

Off again, to head down just south of the sluice and check Lucky Pool, the chapel field and the levels.

Scanning the skies Steve got onto a hawking hobby, while Keith got a distant glimpse of the great white egret shifting feeding grounds – causing much debate about the chemical composition of ‘string’ as no-one else had got it at the time. He was right, though, as we found out later……

A single spoonbill feeding in the distance was perhaps the other highlight.

Our route then took us along the south path, with the note-book tally starting to ease up a bit. Andrew spotted two little gull heading east towards the sea, before we realised we were in the middle of SERIOUS hobby activity. Were there 8? Or 9? The damn things just wouldn’t fly slow enough to tell, but we reckoned in the end there were 9 (or maybe 10?)

We got in the ‘Wildlife Explorer’ hide to settle down a bit, and a hobby shot over the water, chasing a butterfly, which looked like one of the whites. Now, these things can catch dragonflies and swifts, but it couldn’t get this little white flapping insect, which evaded the claws three times by my count, almost imitating the hobby’s mastery of acrobatics.

They were hawking across the woods and reeds around Bittern Hide, so we headed up that way.

The hide was – as expected – pretty full, so myself and a couple of others took up position beneath it, where we had brilliant, brilliant views of the bird I now reckon to be the champion of the air. Watching their swift-like swoops and the virtual halt in the air while food is passed talon-to-mouth, and the sudden acceleration again with a couple of clipped wing beats was for me one of the best birding moments of the year. What they were eating I don’t know – one seemed to have something the shape of a bumble bee, and while there were hairy dragonflies in evidence, there wouldn’t have been enough to keep these chaps going. They were also probably gobbling up clouds of insects rising from the reedbed, but how they could change direction mid-flight and at full speed was a revelation.

Once bittern, twice shy....
Once bittern, twice shy….

The next venue was Island Mere – again, fairly popular, and again I chose to stay outside, so what the others saw, I don’t know. Outside, there was the occasional glimpse of bearded tit, and some stunningly-coloured male sticklebacks in the water below, with shoals of females around them and a future few weeks of solitary parenthood ahead of them. Mr Stickleback doesn’t trust Mrs Stickleback anywhere near his offspring.

Coming towards the end, we climbed Whin Hill past Chateau Springwatch, to have a last scan across the reserve – and there, in the company of a little egret just to provide some scale, was Keith’s great white egret, in full view! String stuffed back into the pocket…..

Thinking that was a great bird to end on, we started heading back to the car park – but it wasn’t over. A nightingale was singing deep in the scrub, accompanied by a goldcrest, somewhere up above.

Helen - not really trying.....
Helen – not really trying…..
Spring colours at Whin Hill
Spring colours at Whin Hill

I know one of these field trips is one day going to be a struggle to make anything text-wise from, but it certainly wasn’t this one – or any of them so far this year. 90 species in about 7 hours has got to be rated as pretty good!

Thanks again to Steve and Andrew for the excellent leadership! And to the hobbies for an unforgettable birding hour.

Post-script: Steve P had been leading a BTO bird i.d. course, so hadn’t joined us for the main course. However, on completion, we returned to the East Hide in the company of Suffolk’s 4th-best gull man, John Grant, to see what the dipping sun brought in.

Not part of the WBC tally, but we ended up with Caspian gull, little ringed plover, little tern, whimbrel and yellow-legged gull to end the day.

A slight furrowed brow of how you could be out for 13hrs (my day having started at 6.30) and not see a starling though…….I hope it’s just because they are all en famille at the moment.

The species list below is presented with the BTO i.d. code for those of you who may like to get familiar with this much quicker way of listing……..

Minsmere May 10th – Species List

Name BTO
Nightingale N.
Red-legged Partridge RL
Chiffchaff CC
Willow Warbler WW
Blackcap BC
Chaffinch CH
Wren WR
Whitethroat WH
Sand Martin SM
Swallow SL
Greylag Goose GJ
Canada Goose CG
Lapwing L.
Bittern BI
Carrion Crow C.
Stock Dove SD
Shoveler SV
Avocet AV
Barnacle Goose BY
Moorhen MH
Pheasant PH
Woodpigeon WP
Redshank RK
Cetti’s Warbler CW
Reed Warbler RW
Sedge Warbler SW
Reed Bunting RB
Bearded Tit BR
Herring Gull HG
Little Egret ET
Kestrel K.
Cuckoo CK
Goldfinch GO
Greenfinch GR
Magpie MG
House Martin HM
Swift SI
Pied Wagtail PW
Turtle Dove TD
Great Tit GT
Blue Tit BT
Long-tailed Tit LT
Coal Tit CT
Blackbird B.
Stone Curlew TN
Common Sandpiper CS
Common Tern CN
Turnstone TT
Coot CO
Gadwall GA
Lesser Black-backed Gull LB
Great Black-backed Gull GB
Buzzard BZ
Tufted Duck TU
Black-tailed Godwit BW
Marsh Harrier MR
Heron H.
Kittiwake KI
Mallard MA
Dunnock D.
Ringed Plover RP
Greenshank GK
Grey Plover GV
Dunlin DN
Mute Swan MS
Spoonbill NB
Oystercatcher OC
Little Grebe LG
Skylark S.
Wigeon WN
Jackdaw JD
Hobby HY
Great White Egret HW
Linnet LI
Cormorant CA
Great-crested Grebe GG
Robin R.
Water Rail WA
Sparrowhawk SH
Barn Owl BO
Mistle Thrush M.
Treecreeper TC
Garden Warbler GW
Green Woodpecker G.
Goldcrest GC
Teal T.
Great-spotted Woodpecker GS
Little Gull LU
Black-headed Gull BH
Common Gull CM
Shelduck SU
‘After Hours’
Whimbrel WM
Little Tern AF
Yellow-legged Gull YG
Little Ringed Plover LP
Caspian Gull YC
Red Deer
Grey Squirrel
Small Copper
Green-veined White
Large White
Orange Tip
Speckled Wood