Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spur of the moment

We decided mid-morning on Friday that we'd travel to Suffolk on Friday night, stay in the Premier Inn outside Ipswich and then head on to Minsmere 'promptly' on the Saturday morning. I've been wanting to head back since our 'Spring' holiday at the end of March - 5 weeks ago already - and since our visit at the end of June 2006, as the site hosts a large number of breeding species and the opportunities for taking photographs abound.

What was immediately apparent was the progression in the season, and not because of the weather. A couple of weeks back Sedge and Willow Warblers were the most numerous singers, having supplanted the Chiffchaff, today however it was Reed Warblers and Whitethroats that were the most numerous. Wherever we went in fact we heard then saw Whitethroat after Whitethroat, sitting proud, singing then taking off to parachute to another perch and carry on singing, this one has been ringed before:

We headed first to the Island Mere Hide. En route we saw Muntjac, Green Woodpeckers, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and plenty of 'garden' birds. As we approached the hide, through the surrounding reeds the number of singing birds was amazing, it's impossible not to smile, broadly, in such circumstances. Whilst trying to spot the singers, we saw a Bittern fly briefly before landing, only the second time we've seen one. From the hide, this Reed Warbler was very audible, he was only a metre or so from the window and must have known we and another couple we were watching him, yet he barely moved:

When he started singing his song lasted for many minutes uninterrupted:

There were still a few singing 'Sedgies' (Sedge Warbler) but the Reed Warblers far outnumbered them:

Another smile making sight from the hide was a group of Mallard ducklings, following mum and mimicking her feeding. Very curious youngsters:

Finally a male Marsh Harrier, cruising over the reed beds looking for breakfast:

We headed back toward the visitor centre then on past it to the pond. In March there had been a small handful of Sand Martins, now the air was full with at least fifty individuals at any one time, some clearly nesting already, others prospecting for a good site:

We spotted this pair over by the sluice, collecting nesting materials:

On past the pond and towards the next destination, the North hide, we heard an unusual though not fluent song. The bird was initially tricky to locate but we soon picked it, though we didn't recognise it. In the end the rufous head and back, the white eye-ring and the fattish rufous tail gave it away, our first ever Nightingale :)

We watched and listened to the bird for a few minutes then went and sat in the hide. The most visible birds from the North hide were two families of Greylag Geese. One family had obviously hatched their goslings a week or so ahead of these younger birds:

who are still very young and very, very cute :)

While we were in the hide a Redshank landed on a post in front of us and posed briefly, before heading off:

On from the North hide we walked out towards the sea and the East hide. En route we passed numerous Whitethroats, some Linnets and saw a number of Common and Little Terns, high over head. From the East hide the most immediately visible birds, really very close to the hide itself, were Avocets and the majority of them on nests:

Though some were up and about, feeding or preening like this one:

It must be very tricky preening with a long and sharply curved bill. Whilst we were in the hide spotting the various waders in the distance (Knot, Ruff, Dunlin, Spotted Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit) the Common Terns were flying about, I caught this one coming in to land. It was quite distant but you can see the shape of the bird clearly:

The next spot after the East hide and the public hide is the sluice at which point you re-enter the reserve. As two years ago, the sluice area was buzzing with Barn Swallows and Sand Martins, often flying so close to us that we could have reached out and touched them. It was here that I photographed the Sand Martins collecting nesting material (above). A couple of Swallows were settling on the gate and signposts very close to where we stood. This one is perched on the gate (PLEASE click on the following pics to see the photos in detail):

Stunning plumage and colours! It's amazing what a bit of natural sunlight does for photography (you were spot on Benjy, thank you!). here the bird has settled down again, showing in profile. Again the plumage colours are absolutely stunning and you can see the 'streamer' feathers too:

You can see from this picture and the next one that the birds were singing. I know I'm still substantially ignorant of birds and their behaviour but I did not expect Swallows to sing. I just didn't associate that kind of behaviour with the bird, but sing they do. And they are very fine singers indeed, I'm surprised they don't have more of a 'reputation' for this aspect of their behaviour. This one is perched on the sign, as you can see:

He spotted me :)

Then carried on singing anyway! I'd moved round to get the whole bird in this shot:

Down the path toward the South hide, we stopped where five weeks ago we'd discovered the Bluethroat (still a fond memory) and watched some Plovers. It was nice not to be ankle deep in water and watching every step :)

We are certain we saw Ringed Plovers but this bird caused us some confusion. It has the body shape and the legs of a Little Ringed Plover but the bill colour of a Ringed Plover, I believe it is a Little Ringed Plover:

From the South Hide, the first most visible bird was this adult Yellow-legged Gull:

Also on the scrape a small group of Knot moulting into breeding plumage, a remarkable change from just 5 weeks ago:

Along from the South hide and heading towards our penultimate stop at the West hide, a female Reed Bunting popped up and started calling:

I like how striking their summer/breeding plumage is. The last stop at Minsmere was the tea room for an early lunch (jacket spud with veg chilli is our highlight) before the drive to Lakenheath Fen.

We lugged the camera and lens around Lakenheath, walking about six miles in two and half hours but it was the middle of the day. The Garganey on site had been flushed away just before we arrived by a keen birder getting too close, the Bearded Reedlings were becalmed and hiding, as was the lone male Bittern and the Cranes. We did see a few Sedge Warblers, including this one, included as it shows the dark plumage detail on the back and tail:

We did catch up with a small group of birders stood craning their necks at the top of the poplars in the furthest planting on the reserve. One chap with very keen eyesight had spotted a pair of Golden Orioles coming to and from a nest they were building. We spotted the male on the nest and saw them fly a few times, although always fleetingly. The best chance of seeing the birds clearly and taking a photograph would probably have been the previous weekend with less foliage and before they had chosen their nest site. Still a first for us and the second new bird of the day!

By the time we got back to the visitor centre just before 5pm, it had been closed for nearly half an hour so no loos and no tea! Time we headed on to our last stop of the day, Paxton Pits in Cambridgeshire.

We didn't stay long at Paxton as the day was getting late and we'd already seen the Nightingales we hoped to see at Paxton at Minsmere. Nevertheless Paxton is always worth a look. Lo and behold more Nightingales. These bird are 'very hard to spot', 'singing from deep cover', just like this one then:

There were a number of Nightingales calling from close to the path so if you want to see or hear one, then i'd pop along. All of the birds we heard today though appeared to be 'warming up' none of them really hit full song so that's a part of the experience we still hope to have in the next couple of weeks.
The last stop of the day was the Kingfisher hide to watch Common Terns swooping over the water of the lake, apparently hawking for insects rather than fishing, I caught this one in the evening light, flying close to the hide:

The noise from the Cormorant colony is amazing and the number of birds and nests has expanded considerably in the five weeks since we last visited Paxton. It was a long day but fantastic and definitely worth the trip!

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